The Kangaroos have started the 2017 Rugby League World Cup with a decisive win over England, and a particularly strong finish, with the visitors putting down points at the fifth minute but failing to score again for the remainder of the game. It was to be the first of a series of dramatic scorelines of the kind that normally typify the beginning of a world cup – especially the Rugby League World Cup – begging the question of just how dominant Australia might be if permitted to go up against some of the less experienced sides.
Jermaine McGillvary was the first and only English player to crash over, on the back of a looping harbour bridge pass that exposed just how uncomfortable Josh Dugan is defending on this left edge. From there, England built to an excellent period of sustained defence at the eleventh minute, managing to keep the Kangaroos out over three consecutive sets, during which Cooper Cronk’s fifth-tackle options felt a little rusty. Whether it was because of the three weeks that had elapsed since the grand final, or because of a couple of knocks early in the game – including a winding late tackle from Sam Burgess – Cronk didn’t quite manage to give his team room to breathe in the way that he usually does.
Yet after a sloppy pass that bounced into touch, England were forced to concede possession to Australia around the seventeenth minute. From there, the Kangaroos put in possibly their most propulsive set of the night so far, starting with a terrific offload from Jake Trbojevic to David Klemmer that saw the Bulldogs prop trample over Jonny Lomax before finally being brought to ground ten metres out from the line.
England doubled down, however, with a couple of ball-and-all tackles halting the Kangaroos’ momentum, and even Slater unable to glimpse enough space as he was forced out of position and over to the left wing, before Morgan lost the Steeden on the final tackle and possession was returned to the visitors. By this point, 70% of the game had been played down England’s end, forcing the men in white and red to put in an epic effort in defence – more than worthy of a world cup – as the Kangaroos struggled to start with the supremacy they normally exude in this kind of meeting.
The home crowd breathed a sight of relief, then, when Matt Gillett crossed over five minutes later for the first Australian try of the evening. Not surprisingly, it came off the back of some deft timing from Smith, who glimpsed a gap opening in the England defence and opted for a short ball to his second rower, who slammed between John Bateman and Luke Gale to bring the Steeden to ground just over the line, showcasing some deft footwork in the process to make the most of Gale’s slightly mistimed read of his pace and trajectory.
Six minutes later Slater crossed over, in what initially felt as if it might be the beginning of a cascade of Australian tries, and the point at which the Kangaroos would break the game wide open, not least because it played as a direct sequel of the previous try, as Smith passed to Cronk, who opted for a short ball to Gillett about ten metres out from the line in turn. This time, however, the big second-rower spun around in the tackle, sending the ball onto Slater, who put in one of his most dazzling displays of sheer strength this year, dancing around and then crashing through England’s punishing forward pack, and using the combined weight of Sam Burgess and two other big men on his back to ground the Steeden as decisively as he ever has in the in goal area.
For all the care taken to refer to AAMI Park as Melbourne Rectangular Stadium for the purposes of the World Cup, it was hard for this not to feel like a Storm home game, given the way in which the Big Three have managed to lend their involvement in any representative fixture a touch of their purple origins. Seeing Slater put down points was therefore more rousing than it would be for a regular fullback, just as Smith’s assist had been just as critical as Gillett’s completion in building momentum a couple of minutes before.
Yet, as fate would have it, the Kangaroos wouldn’t score again until one minute out from the end. With the next fifty minutes or so remaining tryless, the remainder of the game was largely overshadowed by Sam Burgess being taken from the field five minutes before halftime with a right knee injury. It came off the back of a punishing tackle from Gillett followed by a bit of extra attention from Jordan McLean, forcing James Graham to sub on much earlier than Wayne Bennett would have wanted, and making a significant dent in the massive forward pack that has been touted as one of England’s most promising assets
To their credit, however, the visitors dug in even deeper after the dispiriting spectacle of seeing Slammin’ Sam taken off the field, with Ryan Hall putting in a terrific trysaving tackle that prevented Dane Gagai going over two minutes out from the siren, keeping England within a converted try of the Kangaroos as they headed into the sheds. Even more spectacularly, England managed to shut down a line break from Slater and then a damaging run from Josh McGuire on the fourth tackle a minute out from the end, while an intercept from McGillavry on the fifth momentarily looked as if it might see England level the score.
Still, Australia remained dominant well into the second stanza, creating a mounting sense of deadlock that made the sudden shift of fortune in favour of the visitors all the more dramatic when it did come at the sixty-sixth minute. It started with Gareth Widdop appearing to have coughed up the ball, only to bend back and catch it on the ground in the single best gymnastic display of the night.
From there, England sent out a towering bomb that Slater looked set to catch in the in goal area to grant the Kangaroos a seven tackle set, only for Billy the Kid to somehow, inexplicably, let the Steeden slip through his grasp, gaining England a renewed set of six and a fresh assault on the Australian line, with several players looking close to crashing over. For a few scintillating seconds, things seemed to be getting genuinely dangerous for the Kangaroos out on the left wing, until Michael Morgan scooped up a fairly underwhelming fifth-tackle grubber from Josh Hodgson to return possession to the hosts.
Even then, England weren’t done, renewing their assault on the Australian line and forcing the Kangaroos to bring all their defensive efforts to bear on the final ten minutes of the game, when the visitors received the final goal line dropout of the evening after Slater was cleaned up in the in goal area. Sensing an opportunity, the Lions put in one of their most punishing attacking efforts so far, with Ryan Hall almost crossing in the corner until Gagai slammed in with an Origin-worthy trysaving tackle to send the big winger into touch.
While Australia may have been ahead in these final minutes, then, they weren’t decisively ahead, making it particularly rousing to see Dugan cross over a minute out from the end, by way of one of the most perfect intercepts I’ve ever seen – so perfect that it didn’t even look like an intercept, and more like Dugan had willed himself into the English team for a split second, long enough to collect the ball headed for Kallum Watkins before it had a chance to bounce, and then storm down the left side of the field, with only a valiant run from Graham coming close to bringing him down.
Combined with a penalty goal from Smith a couple of minutes earlier, it made for a galvanising late surge for the Kangaroos, and for Dugan in particular, who had had his fair share of frustrations over the course of the night, from letting in England’s first and only try to a compulsory HIA assessment midway through the first act that forced the Australians to rotate their bench more rapidly than they’d originally planned. Seeing him overcome the head assessment and then put down the final points offered the kind of World Cup drama that had been a bit lacking in the first part of the game, cementing the Kangaroos’ spirit and excitement in the build up to next week’s opening match against France in Canberra.