Heartbroken New Zealand fans will tell you there were cogent reasons why their team was thrashed 34-2 by Australia in the World Cup final at Old Trafford, Manchester.
They’ll count them off. Their prop Jesse Bromwich dropped the ball cold when tackled hard in the first set of the match, gifting the Kangaroos psychological domination and field position just 20 metres out from the Kiwi line. Then, just 7 minutes in, they lost match-winning winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to injury which necessitated a series of disruptive positional changes and reduced the bench to three. And key players Luke Hargreaves, Keiran Foran, Issac Luke, Shaun Johnson and Sonny Bill Williams, though they gave their all, were shadows of their fire-breathing selves in last weekend’s knock-‘em-down-drag-‘em-out semi against England…it would have been unusual if they hadn’t still been feeling the effects of that encounter.
Even the haka, normally a volcanic display of malicious intent, today seemed perfunctory.
But, more than anything, it was the class of the Kangaroos that turned Manchester United’s Field of Dreams into a nightmare for the Kiwis. Before the match, coach Tim Sheens had no qualms about unveiling his game plan. “There’s no secret. This match will be about procedures. Running and tackling hard, supporting each other, kicking well, applying pressure. Getting the small things right. If we can do all that, the result will take care of itself.”
In front of a world record rugby league international crowd of 74,468, Australia played pretty near the perfect game. The forwards, to a man, dominated the Kiwi pack. Time and again, skipper Cameron Smith, Matt Scott, James Tamou, and the super-aggressive Greg Bird, Sam Thaiday and Paul Gallen, bent the black and white defensive line when in possession, and when the hapless New Zealanders had the ball they were repeatedly smashed by ferocious three and four-man gang tackles and one-on-one hits that jolted the ball from their grasp.
Australia’s feat in refusing to concede a try in its past four games was not taken seriously by some because they were defending against the unsophisticated attack of the competition’s minnows, but this Kiwi team could claim the most potent attack in the Cup.
New Zealand was on the back foot from the kick off, denied the time and space for their potential match-winners to mount pressure. Williams tried hard, running 150 metres in 17 carries and breaking the line three times, but many of his silky offloads that had been putting supporting men through yawning gaps went to ground.
Ascendancy established through defence and the accurate tactical kicking of Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston, the super-fit and powerful Australians played direct, clinical, no-frills no-mistakes football early in the tackle count, driving relentlessly forward, and then on the fourth and fifth tackles with their opponents in disarray, the backs turned on the magic. The tries they scored – even one that was disallowed – were sublime.
In the 19th minute, with the score 2-2, man-of-the-match Thurston (his fourth best on ground award this series) arced a kick across the Kiwi try-line. Fullback Billy Slater soared to pluck it from the air and score, 8-2. Then 12 minutes later Thurston pushed off Williams (no mean feat) and created an overlap for Slater who put Greg Inglis into space. Inglis to Boyd who kicked for Cronk to score.
At half time it was 16-2. New Zealand, who began the match equal favourite, had a huge mountain to climb. Still, a quick try and they’d be within striking distance. There was a quick try, 50 seconds after play recommenced, but the Kangaroos scored it.
After rapid-fire play-the-balls by Thaiday and replacement forward Andrew Fifita had the Kiwis back-pedalling, Thurston raced clear and passed to Boyd who found the irrepressible Slater backing up. At 22-2, the Kiwis were shot birds.
Then, in the 52nd minute, came the try of the match, maybe any match. The ball sped in dazzling fashion through five sets of Australian hands until it reached hulking forward Josh Papalii on the right side. Although swamped by defenders, he freed his arms and off-loaded to right winger Brett Morris whose deft infield kick was caught on the full by tearaway Jarryd Hayne. Hayne juggled the ball, dropped it onto his foot, and it shot over the try-line to be dived upon Morris. It was instinctive and thrilling, stuff you just can’t coach.
An earlier “try” to Cronk was breathtakingly well-executed, but nixed by referee Richard Silverwood. It deserves retelling. In the 15th minute, Thurston kicked wide and deep for Morris who snatched the ball from the grasp of his huge opposite winger Manu Vatuvei and knocked it back to Hayne, hemmed in on the sideline. Somehow Hayne centre-kicked and Cronk, backing up, caught it and dived over the line. The gallant Luke prevented the Australian from forcing down, and Fifita’s drive to assist Cronk to score was penalised.
With just eight minutes play, Williams’ wide pass 15 metres out from the Australian line was intercepted by Hayne who tore downfield. Nearing the tryline, he found Morris perfectly positioned to score the game’s final try.
As the Kangaroos celebrated, back upfield there was a lovely moment. Williams, distraught and depleted, lay slumped on the ground. Billy Slater ran 25 metres to help his fellow champion to his feet.
Above Old Trafford, a late autumn sunset was setting fire to the clouds, bathing the arena ín a spectacular red glow: nature’s salute to a World Cup that, while it had its share of lop-sided results, will be remembered for the titanic New-Zealand vs England semi final, a contender for the best match of all time, and a triumphant Kangaroo team that, as coach Sheens demanded of them, did everything right.