While Wales may have suffered a disappointing loss in Port Moresby, Saturday’s game at Mt Smart was the first fixture in this world cup in which one side looked genuinely scrappy. Of course, it may be that the expectations are higher, at least for an Australian viewer, when it comes to a side that has so many impressive NRL players amidst its ranks. Even without those expectations, though, it’d be hard to argue that the Samoans were consistently focused and disciplined, with the players themselves appearing to grow more frustrated with their performance as the afternoon proceeded.
The Kiwis were dominant from the outset, with Jordan Rapana putting down points a mere four minutes in, thanks to some impressive interplay with Shaun Johnson. Gathering the ball from his halfback midway down the field, the Canberra winger broke through the line, only to send the ball back inside to Johnson and then get in place to regather it again, comfortably outrunning the Samoan defence the second time around to plant the ball over the line. It didn’t even require the gymnastic dexterity that makes him such a valuable asset for the Raiders, and would be the first of several fairly soft tries for New Zealand.
Ten minutes later, the Kiwis put in a particularly dazzling sequence that started with Nelson Asofa-Solomona offloading to Thomas Leuluai moments before he hit the turf. So close was the big frontrower to the ground that it was almost as if he’d put through an accelerated play-the-ball and we were into the next tackle, as Leuluai fed the ball aross to the left edge of the field, where Dallin Watene Zelezniak scooped it up only to scoot back towards the other side, initially showing some spectacular footwork but quickly called out for running behind several of his team mates – a frustrating outcome given that the Penrith winger has yet to score a try in his national colours, and that he had been dragged into touch right on the wing by a sturdy Samoan pack defence ten minutes before.
The Kiwis didn’t have to wait long to put down more points, however, with Johnson crashing over a couple minutes later, off some deft play in the middle of the field, as Simon Mannering popped his head through the line and offloaded to Leuluai, who got the ball across to his halfback just as quickly. From there, Johnson found space immediately, surging ahead to put the ball over the line in the perfect position for him to convert his own try a minute later, anticipating the increasingly simple, straightforward and apparently effortless four-pointers that would characterise the second stanza for the Kiwi side.
As fate would have it, however, Toa Samoa were the next to score, with Ken Maumalo putting down their first try, and their only points before Joseph Paulo crossed over at the final minute. It came after Samoa had started to build some possession and momentum towards the half hour mark, as the hosts put in a particularly scintillating set about twenty-eight minutes in, only for a knock-on during the fifth tackle to return possession to the Kiwis.
Once they got back down the other end, however, a two metre forward pass from Johnson to Kodi Nikorima gave Samoa the advantage once again, and from there the blue army started to tighten the screws one more time, with Tim Lafai putting in a punishing run up the last edge and forcing the New Zealand defence to scramble to clean up the Steeden when Ben Roberts skidded it across the ground a tackle later. With DWZ dragged into touch on the following Kiwi set, Samoa received the scrum feed, and commenced one of their biggest sets of the night, with Leeson Ah Mau, Bunty Afoa, Herman Ese’ese, Frank Pritchard and Suaiai Matagi all contributing significant hit-ups, in a greatest hits of Samoan big men in the NRL.
While the ball may have been knocked forward by Maumalo on the fifth tackle, New Zealand also spilled it on the following set, gifting the hosts with the opportunity to finally make good on their accelerating field position and momentum, as Young Tounamaipea gathered up the Steeden and funnelled it back down the other end. A couple of tackles later, Joey Leilua shifted over to the left for a long wobbly cut-out pass to Maumalo, who made up for his previous knock-on with one of the best tries of the night, as he scooped up the ball as if it had never bounced off the ground and slammed it in the left corner before the New Zealand defence could get to him, in a display of dexterity that roused and galvanised the Samoan side even if they were unable to manage the subsequent conversion.
Yet that renewed momentum just made Brad Takairangi’s try six minutes into the second stanza all the more dispiriting – all in all, probably the most depressing moment for Samoa across the entire game. It had been preceded by a couple of errors from the hosts, including an unforced handling error, and came off the back of a terrific offload from Marty Taupau to Rapana, which Johnson followed up with a neat grubber that initially appeared to have been cleaned up by Maumalo, only for him to cough it up again under the pressure of a low tackle from Joseph Tapine, releasing the Steeden for Takairangi to ground right on the line.
In the way it clarified the escalating cost of Samoan handling errors, the inability of Maumalo to settle into consistency and clarity of focus over the course of the night, and the sudden reversal of fortune following the Samoan winger’s terrific first stanza try, it felt like the decisive moment at which Samoa lost the game, and contributed in no small way to the surge in momentum that saw New Zealand crest to a thirty-four point lead before the blue army managed put down a lonely four points on the final siren.
From here, then, things started to accelerate for New Zealand as rapidly as they had for Papua New Guinea against Wales, with Nikorima putting down the fourth Kiwi try only six minutes later, on the back of a terrible kick over the sideline from Leilua, who looked distinctively diminished without Rapana alongside him on the edge of the field. Seizing their opportunity, the Kiwis surged at the Samoan defence, with Tapine putting in a massive hit-up (and almost managing the best offload of the night) before Johnson grubbered forward and Nikorima simply outran Leilua, Tounamaipea and Paulo for the simplest, most elegant and most decisive New Zealand try of the game so far.
With Johnson converting effortlessly a minute later, the Kiwis had clearly regained the supremacy that most commentators were expecting from them, and yet for that very reason the try was just the slightest bit anticlimactic as well, proving that the game was going to script as regularly as tends to happen in the opening fixtures of world cups. In some ways, the most exciting moment was seeing Tapine come into his own over the course of the game, if only because it clarified the real wild card of these early world cup clashes – seeing players evolve into a new level of their game, with Tapine’s performance destined to have ramifications for his career at the Raiders just as Martin’s must at the Bulldogs.
If Nikorima’s try made it clear that this was a radically uneven contest, then Isaac Liu’s try three minutes later sealed the deal, with the Roosters forward edging over to the outside and simply slamming through Roberts and Pritchard, reiterating the Kiwis’ superior strength just as Nikorima had reiterated their superior speed, in two of the most direct and straightforward tries you’ll ever see, especially once Johnson converted just as effortlessly for the second time in three minutes.
While the Kiwis might have waited a little bit longer for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to put down their sixth try, it came with the same elegance and simplicity as the previous two, but at long range – a line break and hard run from Nikorima, followed by a deft pass to RTS, and an equally hard run from RTS, who didn’t even look as if he was exerting himself that much, or needed to showcase his legendary footwork, to comfortably outpace the Samoan chase.
While Toa Samoa may have enjoyed a particularly impressive attacking set moments before, their performance had been declining steadily over the previous twenty minutes, with the intrusion of a streaker onto the field seeming like the logical conclusion of so many ridiculous handling errors and unnecessary penalties, especially from a team containing so many powerful NRL players. Four minutes later, Asofa-Solomona’s four points marked a final display of Kiwi supremacy, as Afoa and Roberts brought the big frontrower to ground right in front of the try line, only for him to reach out and slam the ball over the chalk, never in danger of losing possession for a single second.
Over the last four tries, New Zealand had showed how clinically they had the advantage over Samoa in terms of both speed and strength, and these final four points couldn’t have been blunter or simpler – the kind of try that can only put down when the winning team is playing at a totally different level, with the Kiwis barely even appearing to be tired by this late point. Once Johnson converted they were up to a thirty-four point lead, and yet they felt much further ahead, in terms of talent, than the Papua New Guinea side had over the Welsh team, if only because the Samoan side contained so many top-tier NRL players.
Toa Samoa weren’t quite done, however, and put in a particularly strong last set, possibly due to a second streaker on the field, who gave them a bit of a respite with one and a half minutes to go, and possibly in riposte to a dazzling run from RTS shortly before, who outsped Sam Lisone to chase down a high kick from Johnson before the Steeden skidded into touch. Down the other end, Joseph Paulo started the play with a crossfield kick that saw Samoa get a penalty with less than ten seconds to go, as Peter Mata’utia offloaded to Leilua who tried to crash over, only to grubber the ball forward into the in-goal area, where Paulo leapt forward to put down a much-needed try for Samoa at the final siren.
All in all, then, this must have been a disappointment for the Samoan side, who might not have been picked to win, but should still have done better given the considerable crop of talent on their team. Despite being the official hosts, this felt like a Kiwis home game – and a Warriors home game – through and through; a strength and superiority that New Zealand will be looking to maintain when they take on Scotland at Christchurch Stadium next week, just as Samoa will be keen to regain some form against Tonga at Waikato.