First 15 minutes play deciding factor
Australia started the game on fire with an impressive performance from Blake Ferguson who hit back at his critics and took full advantage of keeping his spot due to the injury suffered by Josh Mansour. An early line break saw him break through a number of would be tackles from New Zealand defenders and sprint 60m down the ground to put Australia in good field position. It wasn’t capitalized on but it mattered little as four minutes later a cut-out pass from Michael Morgan found the chest of Ferguson who barged over for the first try of the game.
Moments later they combined again to produce a try for Johnathan Thurston as Morgan exploited a poor defensive read from Thomas Leuluai to put Ferguson into a gap as he cut back on the inside who then gave the ball away to Thurston in support to cross the line. Australia were looking like they were potentially headed for a big score with the easy metres they were making but they did not cross the try-line for the rest of the game with 2 penalty goals being their only points for the next 65 minutes. It showed how important momentum is to the game of Rugby League as it turned out that dominant opening was all they needed to gain the advantage and come away with the win.
Shaun Johnson can’t do it all on his own
In the last 10 minutes of the game Shaun Johnson came to life and started to make his mark on the game. His elusive stepping saw him create plenty of headaches for defenders and in the 76th minute he regathered a Hail Mary chip kick over the line to put Shaun Kenny Dowall into open space who passed to Jordan Rapana for a try to set up a thrilling finish. On the 2nd last play of the game Johnson utilized some fancy footwork from 20m to dodge defenders and get over the line but desperate Australian defence held him up to seal their victory.
During that late period ‘Magic’ Johnson was able to produce some amazing football but it was evident throughout the match that his game was hampered by having to take on organizing duties at halfback. With Thomas Leuluai unable to take the pressure off Johnson with a good kick or set play, all the pressure fell to him to produce points or a repeat set and he was unable to make the most of his running game. Without a sufficient foil in the halves Johnson is unable to play as freely as he’d like to and if New Zealand are to have any chance of winning in the final either Leuluai will need to step up or the Kiwis will have to take a chance on youngster Te Maire Martin.
New Zealand their own worst enemies
The match finished at 2 tries apiece with little ultimately separating the two teams which will make the Kiwis rue the simple errors they made all the more. In defence some poor lapses on their left edge saw them concede two quick tries which were crucial in the end result and their discipline was poor, giving away two 5th tackle penalties on the line putting their defence under immense pressure. They were able to avoid conceding any tries but it gave Australia a chance to kick two penalty goals and extend their lead.
In attack a number of handling errors, passes that didn’t find their mark and kicks that went dead in-goal stifled the Kiwis go-forward and momentum. A strong solo effort from Solomone Kata saw them get points on the board which just highlighted how poor their goal-line attack had been up to that stage with a lack of team cohesion and execution. They proved that they have what it takes to match it with Australia but there is a lot of work that needs to be done in between now and then to get themselves to a standard where they can beat them.
Kangaroos still have room for improvement
Despite the fact Australia have established themselves as a class above the rest of the competition, they believe they still are yet to play at their best in a worrying sign for their future opposition. Captain Cameron Smith rated their performance “at 75 per cent, 80 per cent of our capabilities”. Halfback Cooper Cronk will return to the team next week in a boost to the squad and newcomers like Valentine Holmes and Shannon Boyd will only get better as they get more games under their belt. The competition for spots bought about by Mal Meninga’s devotion to giving every player game time will push everyone to work their hardest and put their best foot forward to keep their spot in the team or break into it. With Meninga declaring that next week he intends to field his full-strength side he’ll have a welcome selection headache as he settles on his best 17.
Australian Kangaroos– 14
Tries: Blake Ferguson (9m), Johnathan Thurston (13m)
Goals: Johnathan Thurston 3/4
New Zealand Kiwis– 8
Tries: Solomone Kata (48m), Jordan Rapana (76m)