WELLINGTON, NZ – It was an historic Four Nations final, one year after a beating in the Rugby League World Cup Final and having already beaten Australia in their opening clash, the Kiwis were hoping to beat the Australians back-to-back for the first time since 1955. An Australian team that had been devastated by injuries in the run up to the tournament, and then three days before by a virus, was relying on the depth and new blood in their side to get them over the line against a rampaging New Zealand outfit.
It was a valiant effort of that there can be no doubt. But even with their big guns in Greg Inglis, Cameron Smith, Michael Jennings, Greg Bird and Sam Thaiday in the side, and despite what would appear to be a close score-line, the Kangaroos were physically smashed around. The problem in rugby league, as with union, is if your forwards cannot get some sort of parity up the middle you are unlikely to have a good day at the office. Even with the likes of hulking new forward David Klemmer in the side, the Kangaroos couldn’t live with the symphony of destruction that was the Kiwi pack and its conductor Shaun Johnson.
However, it was by no means a one-sided affair. In fact judging by the start they made, you could have been forgiven for thinking the Kiwis were the ones laid low by injuries and viruses. Australia clearly came out with the intent to simply hold the ball and get repeat sets, scoring tries was certainly on the agenda, but the aim seemed to be to take the sting out of the fired up Kiwis by simply starving them of possession. It worked. For 10 minutes and 34 seconds. That was how long it took Michael Jennings to get on the end of a bomb that was badly misjudged by two New Zealand defenders and dot down to open the scoring. But then the bulls that were the Kiwi forwards awoke, led ably by the matador that was Shaun Johnson who, aside from his stratospheric bombs, was the architect in chief of Australia’s downfall. A destructive set of tackles up the middle, led by a rampaging Marty Taupau, who was having the game of his life, put the men in black on the Kangaroos 20 metre line. It was a simple thing having sucked the forwards in for a through the hands play leading to Jason Nightingale opening the Kiwis account.
Then ‘The Beast’ joined Johnson’s beauty pageant. One-on-one Manu Vatuvei is near impossible to stop. When you are the youngest Test player in Australian history, one would imagine it might be even more difficult. Poor Sione Mata’utia had the unenviable task of stopping the soon-to-be highest try scorer in New Zealand Rugby League history. He did not have a great day at the office. The second New Zealand try was a Vatuvei special. Hands to the wing allowed Vatuvei to bulldoze Mata’utia for a second Kiwi try. 14-6 at the break and the New Zealanders looked like halftime came to soon, the Australians were fortunate it did.
The second half started much like the first. Early pressure saw Daly Cherry Evans get to the outside of a floundering Dean Whare to be one on one with Vatuvei, it was simple enough to give the ball to a flying Mata’utia for a levelling try. And then with the exception of a brief Australian flurry at the death, it was all one-way traffic. New Zealand’s pack made simple good yards dragging two or three tacklers into every tackle situation. The devastation reached its peak, when Marty Taupau knocked Greg Bird out of the game with a monstrous charge. Johnson was the rapier thrust to his forwards clubbing efforts. He danced and dazzled on his way to a beautiful individual try. He then spent the rest of the game perplexing static defenders in green and gold. It is said great players create their own space and time. If this was an audition, Johnson could be a legend before his career finishes. Another Vatuvei smash and grab saw him pass Nigel Vagana’s New Zealand try record.
The fight was not completely gone from the Australians, a Ben Hunt try in the 76th minute (off a forward pass) kept the Kangaroos in the hunt for a famous victory. However, a Mata’utia disallowed try (off a non-forward pass!) meant that the Kiwis got revenge for their World Cup loss.
A beautiful performance on the back of some bludgeoning forward work.