Even with Blake Ferguson and Latrell Mitchell out for the Indigenous-Maori clash back in Australia, the difference in quality between the Sydney Roosters and the Wigan Warriors – and between the NRL and Super League – couldn’t have been starker when the two rugby league champions met at DW Stadium on Sunday night. For NRL fans, this match will primarily be remembered as Brett Morris’ first resounding performance in Sydney City colours, since the ex-Bulldog scored the opening three tries for the Roosters, providing a powerful promise of what he can bring to the 2019 NRL season.
The first four points came only three minutes in, after Matt Ikuvalu had balanced on a knife’s-edge to pop the football back into play halfway down the field, moments before. tumbling over the sideline. A repeat set later, and on the back of strong runs by James Tedesco and Morris himself, Cooper Cronk sent the Steeden out to the left edge of the attack, where Morris was momentarily stopped in a tackle from Thomas Leululai and Oliver Gildart, only to skirt and duck his way out of it to score the first try in the corner.
A few sets later, Joe Greenwood made a similarly deft effort to remain within the field of play, while Leuluai followed with an oddly deflected kick that showcased a dangerous bounce. Yet with Liam Farrell called offside the Roosters got their hands back on the ball, and Morris now showcased an even more incredible tryscoring effort. In effect, it was an intensified version of his previous run, as he gathered the football from Cronk and simply barnstormed his way into five Wigan defenders, who only just managed to hold him up until he was stationary five metres out from the chalk.
On its own terms, this would have been an incredible run at the line, but Morris now proceeded to not only drag the Wigan players in goal, but to maintain possession of the Steeden securely enough to wrench his arm out of the tackle and rotate it around behind his head to ground it on the turf behind him. There couldn’t have been a better way for Morris to announce himself to his new team, even if it was against a Wigan outfit that were clearly playing below their capabilities at this early stage. This time, Sio Suia Taukeiaho added the extras, and the Chooks were ten ahead with barely ten on the clock.
Nevertheless, the Roosters started to get cocky as the twenty minute mark approached, as a dangerous tackle from Jake Friend and then a high tackle from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves saw tensions flaring, and the Sydney team getting an informal warning from the referees. A harbor bridge pass from Leuluai to Williams gave Wigan a glimpse at points, and with Williams executing some deft movement to the right a set later Tom Davies was able to recapitulate his try against Warrington at the end of the 2018 season.
This flashback to the grand final seemed to galvanise Wigan, and while they may not have got the conversion – they wouldn’t get the conversion for either of their two tries – they were like a new team for the next couple of sets, even despite a inexplicable knock-on from Zak Hardaker moments later. In particular, they amped up their defence, resulting in the messiest Sydney set of the night after a huge hit from Greenwood on JWH, an equally big hit from Leuluai from Cronk, and enough pressure to force Joseph Manu to lose the footy on the far side of the field.
With that move on Manu, in particular, Wigan seemed to have momentarily halted the highlights reel that the Roosters had enjoyed ever since Ikuvalu’s sideline dexterity in the opening minutes of the game, culminating with Willams scooping the footy out of Manu’s grasp and stormed down the field for the most exhilarating set of the night so far for the Super League outfit. Yet Wigan couldn’t maintain the momentum, as a low-pressure kick from Leuluai – cleaned up effortlessly by Daniel Tupou – set the scene for a gradual deceleration that saw Morris almost cross over for a hat trick after wrenching the ball from Wigan right on their try line.
As it turned out, Morris had regained possession just after the tackle was deemed complete, but it didn’t much matter, since it just set him up for an even more spectacular third try – and an even more spectacular hat trick – following a slow peel from Greenwood at the thirty minute mark, and a fresh injection of Roosters energy after Victor Radley was subbed off for Nat Butcher. Despite a bone-rattling tackle from Dan Sarginson on Tedesco, the Chooks set themselves up to score much as they had the first two times, with Cronk now sending the ball out to Morris through Luke Keary, rather than popping it across to the left edge himself.
By this stage, you sensed that Sydney City were luxuriating in improvisation, relishing all the ways in which they could practice their new combinations and possibilities with a captive team. While Morris might have barnstormed his way through the defence once again, then, this time he accelerated and adopted a more oblique angle, bouncing and rolling his way through Davies and Leuluai until it looked more like they were the ones trying to put down points, so awkwardly did they ricochet around his clean movement through them.
The Roosters might have only been ten points ahead when they headed into the sheds, but there was no doubt that this had been an utterly decimating performance – three tries, all scored by the same player, all scored in the same part of the park, and all scored in much the same playmaking combination. It was clear that Wigan needed to come back big in the second half, and a big run from Sarginson initially seemed to promise just that, as we glimpsed the volatile energy that had made this team so convincing in their hard-fought win against Warrington in October.
For a moment, it looked as if they’d continue that energy, digging in to produce the longest period in the match without points – a stark contrast to Morris’ stunning opening. To put even more of a dent in the Roosters’ momentum, Farrell tackled their no. 5 in the air a couple of minutes in, forcing him to undergo a leg examination on the field before he was finally cleared to play. While Wigan still weren’t seamless, they were self-correcting more consistently now as well. Nine minutes in, Hardaker cleaned up a Cronk kick pretty neatly only to knock it on in the scrum, but Marshall made up for it by cleaning up the next Cronk kick under some considerable pressure from Ikuvalu.
Still, the Roosters were dominant, as Manu and Cronk combined to shove Greenwood into touch from about ten metres in field, and Ikavulu almost crossed over in the corner, forcing the Warriors to bring all their scrambling defence to bear on holding him up. An agonising near-try an hour in seemed to galvanise the home side even further, and finally give them a slight competitive edge, resulting in the Roosters deciding to take the two on the back of a second effort from Willie Isa – a competitive decision that would have been unthinkable during the first stanza.
It was only a matter of time before Wigan scored their next and last try, thanks to some deft work from Marshall in their left corner. Bending down and timing his pickup perfectly in the face of a low skittering ball, Marshall then ground it with a wingman’s dexterity that outdid any of Morris’ tries, planting the footy to earth a millisecond before being bundled into touch. Wigan didn’t get the extras, but on an eight point lead the Chooks were by no means invulnerable, especially with no tries scored this stanza.
In the end, they had to wait until the seventy-sixth minute to get some security, when Tupou crossed over for the last try of the night. It was a bit of an anticlimax after the opening three tries from Morris, and one of the quieter conclusions to a World Club Challenge in recent years. Nevertheless, there’s more than enough to rouse the Roosters as they return home and get ready for the 2019 season, while the Warriors can also feel proud of having kept the world’s best rugby league team in 2018 to only twenty points, and only four in the second half.