ANZAC TEST: Australian Kangaroos v. New Zealand Kiwis (GIO Stadium, 5/5/17)
The Kangaroos brought home a decisive win in the nation’s capital for the 100th test between Australia and New Zealand, leaving the visitors tryless until fifteen minutes into the second half when Simon Mannering managed to put down a fairly contentious four-pointer. Up until then, it was like watching a Kangaroos highlights reel, with the Australians putting down try after try and the Kiwis struggling to make their most of their goal line drop outs against a defensively dominant side.
Josh Dugan put the first points on the board after managing to outdo Jordan Kahu under a well-placed bomb from Thurston, who didn’t appear to be suffering even the most residual symptoms of his calf tear against the Tigers. In retrospect, it was a bit of a bittersweet beginning for both Dragons and Blues supporters, since Dugan would be taken off with a fractured cheekbone late in the second half, in what has to be a major blow for St. George-Illawarra and New South Wales’ momentum over the coming weeks and months.
Five minutes later, the Kiwis were starting to glimpse some good field position after a goal-line dropout one set after Dugan’s try. As the ball made its way across the backline, Blake Ferguson intercepted a pass from Shaun Johnson to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, turning what looked to be a certain New Zealand try into possibly the ballsiest Australian four-pointer of the night, with Fergo managing to run the entire length of the field and even outpace Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to ground the ball in the top right corner.
It’s the third time in two weeks that an intercept on Johnson has resulted in a try, and while Warriors fans might find some small solace in Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s possible suspension on the back of his recent drug bust, the fact remains that the NRL’s most mercurial halfback needs to find more control with his passing game. As if Fergo’s run weren’t insult enough, ten minutes later he did it again, but only got halfway down the field this time, where he passed it to Sam Thaiday who put in an equally impressive run – shorter than Fergo’s first, but more jam-packed with defenders – to sip it over to Will Chambers who made it three for the Kangaroos.
At one moment there it even looked as if Thaiday himself might score, with the big man seeming to gather all the Australian momentum and crystallise it into one slamming run that very nearly saw him get across the line. From this point onwards the Australians were clearly supreme – at least in the first half – with Tyson Frizell managing another try from the forward pack after J.T. set up a grubber to ricochet off the goal posts at just the right angle.
Frizell’s try was all the more impressive in that it came off the back of one of the spottiest sets – relatively speaking – for the Kangaroos all night. You know that a team has really got a good thing going when the forwards are able to bust through and put down tries, and between Thaiday and Frizell it felt as if the Australian front pack could do no wrong. Sure enough, Jake Trbojevic put down the fifth try off a blind pass from Cooper Cronk and a great decoy run from Matt Gillett two minutes after the break – a sequence that more than any other testified to the organisation and focus of the Australian side.
As it turned out, however, that would be the last four points for the green and gold, with the Kiwis managing to save face – you couldn’t quite call it a comeback – and put down two tries of their own. The first, from Mannering, didn’t make much of a statement, at least in comparison to the decisiveness of the Kangaroos, since while it came off the back of a busting run it didn’t really look as if it had been grounded decisively, with the Bunker unable to reverse the on-field ruling due to a lack of definitive video evidence.
The second was more impressive, and came fifteen minutes before the end as Fergo was pushed into touch after leaving it just a bit late to clean up the Kiwis’ high ball. Risking the Steeden going dead – as so many Kiwis kicks had over the course of the night – Fergo gave the visitors space to regain possession, and from there a great crossfield run and pass from Johnson set up RTS for the most powerful New Zealand moment of the night, even if it didn’t quite feel plausible that they would manage to make it back.
That’s not to say, of course, that the Kiwis didn’t put up a good fight, since they spent long sections of the first half on the Australian line, thanks in part to a series of repeat goal line drop outs that forced the Kangaroos to draw upon all their defensive resolve. Still, there was a bit less organisation and focus amongst the New Zealanders, epitomised by how they handled the critical buildup to half time. With Jason Taumalolo losing control of the Steeden right on the touch line and Dean Whare passing it forward on what could have been the critical tackle for the Kiwis, the team went into the sheds without putting a point on the board.
Still, nothing compared to Jordan Rapana’s brainsnap twenty minutes from the end of the game – the kind of bizarre move that often only happens in test footy. After failing to clean up the high ball Rapana knocked it back beautifully into touch, only to realise that there were no Kiwis to pick it up for him, forcing him scoot over, slapstick-like, and ground it himself before Valentine Holmes got there first. Between that and his loss of the ball in the subsequent Kiwis set, it really made me realise how much Rapana works in the context of the current Raiders infrastructure – they may need him, but he also needs them.
On the Australian side, it’d also be deceptive to suggest that the talent was merely a matter of individual tryscorers. If anything, the Kangaroos’ greatest achievement was their utter seamlessness as a team, with players challenged to go above and beyond their usual performances for the sake of the whole. Two men epitomised that spirit in particular – Johnathan Thurston, who put in a tremendous kicking game for his first stint back after injury; and Matt Gillett, who was everywhere all the time, and probably more critical than any other player to the defensive resolve that allowed the Kangaroos to withstand the repeated goal line dropouts in the first half.
All in all, then, an outstanding performance from both sides, a terrific prologue to the World Cup, as well as the remainder of Representative Round, and a fascinating dress rehearsal for Origin, not least because it seems as if J.T. and Dugan may now not be available for their respective sides. And, of course, a great setup for the next time these two teams meet, since you can be sure that the Kiwis will be anxious to regain some of their pride next time around.
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