Double-header a brilliant advertisement for international rugby league
High-profile withdrawals and familiar complaints regarding player burnout ensured the Four Nations tournament started behind the eight-ball – yet another international rugby league tournament derided before a ball had even been kicked. But the quality and competitiveness of the football, and the electric atmosphere at Suncorp Stadium, marked the competition’s opening weekend double-header as a triumph for the code.
Four Nations minnows Samoa’s plucky performance in going down by just six points to highly-fancied England, along with the island nation’s vociferous crowd support, was a glittering highlight in Test rugby league’s chequered and much-maligned recent history. New Zealand guaranteed it would be a day to go down in the game’s folklore by trouncing Australia 30-12, in front of an evenly-split Brisbane crowd that eventually reached 47,831 – only a few thousand less than Suncorp’s Test record established at the 2008 World Cup final.
Dominant Kiwis surge to favouritism
The Kiwis’ stunning defeat of the Kangaroos has seen them leapfrog the world champs into favouritism to take out the tournament. While Australia’s new-look squad attracted most of the pre-tournament attention, New Zealand also had a number of blue-chip withdrawals – including Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Ben Matulino, Sam Moa and Konrad Hurrell – and was without suspended Isaac Luke’s services for the opening clash.
But despite a disastrous start in which they conceded a try inside two minutes after a dropped ball by Gerard Beale and a bombed try by Jason Nightingale, the Kiwis ultimately produced their best Test performance since the ’08 World Cup final. Their pack was magnificent, Shaun Johnson was sublime and halves partner Kieran Foran played a fine support role, and fullback Peta Hiku had an absolute blinder. The Kiwis’ physicality on both sides of the ball, outstanding second-phase play and superb energy from start to finish was too much for the Kangaroos to handle.
The win was New Zealand’s first over Australia since the 2010 Four Nations final, and the first in a non-final since the 2005 Tri-Nations. With one foot in the door of this year’s Wellington-hosted final, the Kiwis are in the box seat to win their fourth of the last eight international tournaments.
Battered, inexperienced ’Roos on the ropes
Although they fielded five Test debutants, the Kangaroos were heavily favoured to do the job against a New Zealand outfit that has generally struggled to rise to the occasion in recent trans-Tasman Tests; as the Channel Nine commentary highlighted, most of the newcomers had already starred in Origins and/or grand finals.
But after a 12-all first half – and injuries to Daly Cherry-Evans and Greg Inglis – Australia was outmuscled and outplayed after the break, held scoreless while conceding three touchdowns. Worryingly, the margin could have been much more than 18 as the Kiwis had a couple of scoring attempts called back.
Stand-in fullback Dylan Walker was terrorised by the kicking game of Johnson, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk struggled to ignite a reshuffled backline, and the Kangaroos’ forwards were pummelled by their aggressive counterparts. The strong debut of Aaron Woods – the only specialist prop in Australia’s 17 – was a rare highlight, but now a must-win clash with England stands between green-and-gold redemption and an embarrassing early exit from the Four Nations.
Australia is at risk of missing the final of an international tournament for the first time since the inaugural 1954 World Cup.
Opportunity knocks for patchy Poms
Pushed to the wire by Samoa, England can now smell blood in the water as they approach a vitally-important showdown with besieged Australia. Although there were some positive signs, England would not have been totally satisfied with the 32-26 win over the competition’s outsiders. They fielded arguably the best and highest-profile front-row rotation in the Four Nations but were comfortably matched, while discipline and ball-control let them down, and star NRL backs Sam Tomkins and Gareth Widdop were well contained.
But the chance to eliminate old foe Australia from the tournament – as well as sealing their own place in the final – will be all the motivation England needs ahead of the clash in Melbourne, seeking their first win over the Kangaroos since a 23-12 result (as Great Britain) in Sydney in 2006.
They’ll need more from the likes of James Graham, the Burgess brothers, Widdop and Tomkins, but this shapes as the most intriguing and important Anglo-Australian Test since Ashes series were shelved over a decade ago.
Gallant Samoa’s greatest day
Samoa has enjoyed some fine wins since coming to international rugby league prominence in the 1990s, including triumphs over their Pacific rivals and World Cup thrashings of the likes of France. But their spectacular performance in the 32-26 loss to England was surely their greatest moment on the Test football stage. Repeatedly fighting back to claim a lead in each half, Samoa kept coming until the final whistle – and the atmosphere generated by their supporters was absolutely awe-inspiring.
As predicted, erratic halves pairing Ben Roberts and Kyle Stanley struggled to dictate terms and endured some forgettable moments, but interchange hooker Pita Godinet – who scored a brilliant second-half double – was outstanding, Samoa’s backline was skilful and penetrative all afternoon and their pack, in particular Mose Masoe, Frank Pritchard, Josh McGuire, Isaac Liu and David Fa’alogo, lost nothing in comparison to their vaunted opponents.
While a victory over New Zealand in Whangarei on Saturday or against Australia next week in Wollongong is still unlikely, Samoa has made the heavyweights – and the rugby league world – sit up and take notice.
Australia: Greg Inglis is assured to be fit for selection after suffering from the effects of a virus during the loss to the Kiwis, but Daly Cherry-Evans is shaping as a long-shot to recover from a hip complaint – an absence that would see Ben Hunt make his major representative debut at five-eighth.
David Klemmer may come into the frame – most likely for Josh Papalii – after the Kangaroos’ pack was beaten up by the Kiwis, although pitching the Canterbury tyro into such a pressure game would be a big call. The temptation to bring Boyd Cordner or Josh Jackson into the 17 is sure to be tugging at coach Tim Sheens.
Debutant wingers Josh Mansour and Daniel Tupou had largely unhappy first-up outings, but throwing teenage wingers Alex Johnston and Sione Mata’utia in against England’s world-class flankmen Ryan Hall and Josh Charnley is not an avenue Sheens is likely to chance.
New Zealand: Several players can expect to get a run against the comparatively weaker Samoan outfit – and the chance to push for inclusion for the England encounter and a likely final appearance will be critical.
After starting terribly against Australia, wing pairing Gerard Beale and Jason Nightingale recovered to put in strong all-round displays – but Manu Vatuvei, a shock exclusion last week, can force his way into the first-choice team with a blockbusting performance against a quality Samoan opponent.
Isaac Luke will return from suspension at hooker, but coach Stephen Kearney’s conundrum will be whether to carry Thomas Leuluai or Lewis Brown as the bench utility moving forward. Both offer excellent versatility in different areas; but although veteran Leuluai would seem the obvious choice, Brown was one of the Kiwis’ best against Australia.
The remainder of the Kiwis’ triumphant 17 should get another opportunity against England in Dunedin next week.
England: Skipper Sean O’Loughlin is slated to return this week, meaning a forward will need to drop out – most likely one of last week’s bench men, Brett Ferres or Chris Hill.
The dummy-half rotation of Josh Hodgson and Daryl Clark impressed against Samoa, but coach Steve McNamara may tinker with who starts after Hodgson got the nod for the Samoa encounter. England’s crack backline is unlikely to see any changes, although Wigan flyer Joe Burgess is busting for an opportunity.
Samoa: Tim Lafai is available for selection this week and will come straight into the side, almost certainly for Ricky Leutele – who had a strong game against England – after fellow centre Joseph Leilua produced a blinder.
Stood-down trio Tautau Moga, Reni Maitua and Sauaso Sue will be hard-pressed forcing their way into the 17 after Samoa’s stirring performance last Saturday. Samoa’s greatest area of weakness is undoubtedly the halves, but alternative options are thin on the ground for coach Matt Parish.
Tim Simona did enough in the unfamiliar fullback role to retain the No.1 jumper.