Sport Rugby League Four Nations: Shaun Johnson and other marvels

Four Nations: Shaun Johnson and other marvels

Shaun Johnson
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Shaun Johnson is a genuine superstar of our game

Twinkle-toes Johnson shows a clean pair of heels to Cooper Cronk. Photo: Getty
Twinkle-toes Johnson shows a clean pair of heels to Cooper Cronk. Photo: Getty

Proving himself as a big-match player with man-of-the-match awards in consecutive boilovers against Australia, Kiwi halfback Shaun Johnson is potentially the best player in the world.

His try assist for Manu Vatuvei’s first try oozed brilliance, while his stunning individual try in the second half – showcasing his phenomenal speed and untouchable ball-running ability – will go down in Test folklore.

Johnson is such a unique talent who regularly does things that no other player in the game can. At just 24, he is destined to go down as New Zealand’s greatest rugby league product.

The Kangaroos weren’t robbed at the death

It was marginal, but the forward pass call in the dying seconds that denied Australia an equalising try was the right one. And given the shocking forward pass that was let go in the Kangaroos’ previous try to Ben Hunt, it was sweet justice.

Headlines suggesting the favourites were robbed were an insult to Kiwis’ much-deserved win. To their credit, the Kangaroos camp had no complaints about the call afterwards.

Kiwis could be on the cusp of a golden era

The final triumph was a red-letter day for New Zealand rugby league, marking the first time in 61 years the Kiwis have chalked up back-to-back wins over their perennial international oppressors Australia.

While it was undeniably a second-string Kangaroos line-up, the Kiwis were also without some first-choice players – New Zealand fielded just seven survivors from last year’s World Cup final to Australia’s eight.

The Kiwis’ forwards were dominant, their halves were magnificent, and a host of relative Test newcomers, such as Peta Hiku, Martin Taupau and Tohu Harris, played like seasoned veterans.

But one of the most pleasing aspects for victorious coach Stephen Kearney – who has now won three of six international tournaments – and the Kiwis’ brains trust would have been the fact the team got the job done after being strongly favoured. New Zealand’s sporadic wins over Australia have been massive upsets, while the Kiwis traditionally crumbled when given a big chance by the pundits.

It’s also a young side – no player in the squad for the final is older than 28, and that batch (along with returning stars such as Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves) will form a team that can give the 2017 World Cup a mighty shake.

Manu Vatuvei
Manu Vatuvei after barging through the Australian defence. Photo: Getty

Nobody bounces back better than ‘The Beast’

The enigma’s enigma Manu Vatuvei was pinpointed as a weak link in the New Zealand line-up after being caught out repeatedly by Josh Charnley and the England side last week. But, as he generally does, the big winger responded with one of his finest Test performances.

Chalking up a game-high 192 metres from 21 bullocking runs, ‘The Beast’ showed trademark power to score a try in each half, while his half-volley pick-up for the first was sensational.

Vatuvei’s double also took him past Nigel Vagana as the greatest try-scorer in Kiwis history, advancing his total to 20 in 27 Tests.

The one-referee system is not all it’s cracked up to be

The NRL’s two-referee system cops a relentless bagging – and most of it is warranted.

But the shortcomings of having just one whistle-blower under international rules were badly exposed in the final.

Englishman Phil Bentham’s control of the 10 metres was appalling, while he continually allowed the Australian defenders to take out New Zealand’s kicker Johnson with late tackles.

Australia blew it with their squad selection

Aaron Woods
Aaron Woods was impressive, but could have done with some help. Photo: Getty

The Kangaroos were beaten up by the big, aggressive Kiwis pack in the tournament opener, and it happened again in the final.

Although Aaron Woods and David Klemmer – the only specialist props picked in the green-and-golds’ squad – were superb throughout the campaign and Josh Papalii made a fine fist of being moved up front, Australia would have benefitted from having another hard-head like Aiden Tolman or Jacob Lillyman to do the tough stuff.

As it transpired, the Kiwis’ rotation of Jesse Bromwich, Adam Blair, Greg Eastwood and Martin Taupau comprehensively outplayed their opposing unit.

The Kangaroos will remain the benchmark

There is no disputing the under-strength Kangaroos were the second-best team in the Four Nations by a fair margin, but they will rocket back to favouritism with their sidelined stars back on deck when they meet the Kiwis early next year.

Johnathan Thurston, Brett Morris, Matthew Scott, Billy Slater and (possible representative ban pending) Paul Gallen will come straight back into the Test side, handing Australia the impetus again in the trans-Tasman rivalry.

But with that comes a word of warning: the Kangaroos’ ageing line-up will gradually dismantle before the 2017 World Cup and a tricky transitional phase looms for the defending champs.

The code must capitalise on best-ever Four Nations

Samoa is emerging as a genuine international power. Photo: Getty

The tournament was a raging success – brilliant games, big crowds, the emergence of Samoa as a genuine international power, and topped off by a breathtaking final that is up there with the best Tests of the modern era.

But the Four Nations was accompanied by constant and familiar burnout gripes from Australian players, a factor that continues to hold back international rugby league.

There is no tournament next season, but the game’s powerbrokers need to build on the ground made at last year’s World Cup and the recent Four Nations by keeping a full calendar.

Jesse Bromwich ranks with the world’s best

New Zealand’s Jesse Bromwich was the standout prop of the Four Nations and produced another towering display in the final, racking up 20 runs for 161 metres, three offloads and 27 tackles. The Melbourne Storm star is undoubtedly in the conversation now as arguably the game’s best bookend, along with James Graham and Matt Scott.

It’s not necessarily the end of Tim Sheens’ reign

Predecessors Wayne Bennett and Ricky Stuart were brought undone by losses to the Kiwis in tournament finals, and Tim Sheens has now suffered two after also overseeing the 2010 Four Nations defeat – but the long-serving mentor may still hang onto the gig.

In six seasons at the helm, a streak bettered only by Bob Fulton (1989-98), those are Sheens’ only two losses.

And who would take on the job if Sheens was put out to pasture?

Current NRL coaches would be reluctant to take on another demanding, time-consuming role, while Laurie Daley and Mal Meninga are highly unlikely to give up their Origin positions. There are not too many realistic options who aren’t already gainfully employed.