Shock and awe in Four Nations openers as New Zealand stun Australia
It perhaps wasn’t perhaps the roll-over England rugby league fans expected in Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium down under, though Steve McNamara’s side got themselves over the line with a hard-fought 32-26 victory against Samoa.
At this level, there are no poor teams and, despite the talent in England’s squad, Samoa almost matched them in desire to win. Super League Man of Steel, Daryl Clark made an instant impact on his debut when he came on; his run from acting half back, hitting behind the ruck area opened the defence, and drawing the Samoan full back, played Castleford teammate Michael Shenton in to score the first try.
With James Graham deputising as skipper in Sean O’Loughlin’s absence, the Canterbury Bulldogs player gave a rugged, hard-working display, leading from the front. McNamara acknowledged that he wished he would have had longer with his side to prepare, though knows they will only get better, saying: “We’re a brand new team practically.”
This is a Samoan side that will cause problems for New Zealand and particularly Australia. The game swung in momentum, time and again and the Pacific islanders, with former St Helens, Hull FC and England player, Sean Long as assistant coach, fought hard to take the lead.
In the second half, England, 7/1 with Coral to win the Four Nations, needed to dig deep. The Tomkins brothers Sam and Joel scored what turned out to be the decisive tries, both capitalising on high kicks from the sixth tackle. Without the steel nerves and kicking talent of Gareth Widdop, it could have been a different story. The St George Illawarra Dragons player converted five goals, plus a penalty, a total of 12 points.
Pre-tournament favourites Australia, however, were humbled by a New Zealand side that came into the game with an obvious vengeance to show the rugby league world they were no longer willing to play second fiddle. Despite the hosts taking the lead, the Kiwis dominated from then on.
Now evens to win the tournament, and Australia edged out to 11/10, New Zealand can put themselves into the final with a win against Samoa in their next game. This Kangaroos team are a side in transition. With arguably the best player in the world, Billy Slater, recovering from a shoulder injury, so absent from proceedings, they still had on half of their class double act, in Greg Inglis, who crossed in the first half.
However, when the stand-in full back went off injured and didn’t come back onto the field of play, Australia, all of a sudden in trouble. Melbourne Storm’s second row Kevin Proctor was unplayable and caused all kinds of problems for Australia’s defence. Shaun Johnson was sublime. They call this 24-year-old half back, “Magic Johnson”, and it was certainly his influence that was a huge factor in the shock 30-12 result.
New Zealand will take some stopping. Perhaps, just perhaps, England can be the team, though McNamara is keeping his players feet on the ground. They must first get past Australia, however, will relish the opportunity at putting the hosts out of what has historically been accepted, as their tournament early.