LONDON, ENGLAND – One was a nail-biting, cliff-hanging, heart-breaking clash of two of World Rugby League’s Super Powers. The other was an unfortunate (but slick) one-sided butt-kicking. And so we have our finalists; the probable winners, as predicted by this column just a few weeks ago, will go head-to-head this weekend. Australia vs New Zealand, Part Deux. But before that, let us reflect on two semi-finals that show why Rugby League is truly growing as a global sport.
England vs New Zealand: The hosts against the titleholders would prove to be one of the best international fixtures in living memory. The heartbreak, however, will be etched long in the memories of the English Rugby League fans. England were everything New Zealand were not, savage in defence and magical in attack. In truth though, it was always going to come down to a moment of individual genius from one side or the other. The NRL quality of James Graham and ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess were on show for all to see. Their running lines without the ball and beguiling handling skills with it were skills of beauty. The first try involved Graham popping a two metre flat pass to a charging Burgess, who slammed straight into Shaun Johnson, offloaded round the corner and allowed Shaun O’Loughlin to stroll over the line. New Zealand were guilty of forcing the play for 79 minutes, and it took a miracle behind the back mid-air, going in to touch pass from Dean Whare to set up Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for the Kiwis to go into the sheds at halftime level at 8-8. Much like the beginning of the first half, the world champions started on the front foot, a miscued intercept attempt by England winger Ryan Hall allowed Tuivasa-Sheck to walk in untouched to put New Zealand ahead. Yet they still did not look as intense or as convincing as this inspired English side. Centre Kallum Watkins picked a beautiful line and shrugged off two defenders to cross for another England try. 14-14. Burgess turned recipient with another running line that overshadowed the performance of the almighty SBW. Burgess took a flat pass, added some beautiful footwork and then simply blasted over the Kiwi fullback to put England ahead 18-14. And all England held its breath. But it was not to be… 20 seconds left and the other Burgess boy on the field conceded a penalty with a swinging arm against SBW. 20 metres out and England jumped out of their defensive line, an elusive Johnson stepped inside and crossed over the line.
England were so good! So slick! So close! And so unfortunate. The World Champions progress to the final, where they have the chance to defend their title against the almighty Australians.
Australia vs Fiji: 64-0 and vintage Kangaroos. Nothing new, nothing revolutionary, but these Australians just do it all so well. The tries were carbon copies of others we have seen, even the scorers names were the same. Thurston throws a dummy and walks in, Boyd on the end of a Greg Inglis pass. Cross field kicks, plays made up on the fly, the Australians look ominous. The basic principles are just done to perfection and these basics can seem complicated when done at speed, but overlaps, straightening runs and construction of their game is pure Roo. Their forwards are so completely clear in their roles of running hard, multiple lines to confuse the defence, as seen by Josh Papalii’s try, a simple diagonal run 10 metres from the Fijian line, who is going to stop this jet engine on legs? Answer, no-one. Come next weekend we may witness two of the best international teams to ever step on the pitch going at it in what could go down as the greatest final in history.
As for the Fijians, they have been utterly brilliant. Their friendly, warm ties with the communities they have lived amongst during their time in England will live long in the memory. They have showed the importance and the ability of the Island Nations. Smooth and faultless at their best on the pitch, they were a perfect example of all that makes rugby players great.
And so to the Final… the predictable teams are there but frankly, as before the call is six of one half a dozen of the other. You want to know who to bet on, the New Zealand power or the Australian fluidity? Don’t ask me, I don’t know myself.
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