The Australia v NZ clash was a huge test for this 2008 Rugby League World Cup, which was crying out for a competitive match-up between two of the three most powerful teams involved.Even though it was the third fixture of the tournament, last night’s match also featured the opening ceremony – but for a while, it would have been appropriate to hold the closing ceremony as well, such was the apparent inevitability about the winner.
Let’s face it, the same teams are highly likely to meet again in the November 22 final in Brisbane. That might be being slightly unfair to England, but they will have to show far more than they did on Saturday night in the true opener against PNG.
So will New Zealand, really. They did their best to ensure the tournament began predictably, and the bookmakers, who have posted the Kangaroos as $1.20 favourites to win the entire tournament, were proved correct (as Craig Bellamy would attest, the odds don’t lie). At half-time, the Kiwis were clinging to this game with one little finger, and tournament director Colin Love was joining them.
The Kiwis appeared to leave their aggression in a particularly fearsome haka, which began in a huddle. As soon as the game started, they were in a muddle.
As early as the eighth minute, the Australians showed their hand – a left one – by spreading to that very side in a slick play which only broke down when centre Greg Inglis lost possession in a tackle. But they kept going the same way, and scored their two first-half tries on the left side.
The first came after 14 minutes, three minutes after Johnathan Thurston’s penalty goal opened the scoring, when Inglis redeemed himself by stepping Steve Matai.
Their second went a little wider, left winger Monaghan scoring on debut.
The Australians were exploiting even the smallest chinks in the Kiwi defence. In this case, it was just the slightest hesitancy from Matai, who was suffering from a thumb injury and also the knowledge that he had been placed on report for his 13th minute high hit on Australian lock Paul Gallen. Matai’s menace was sorely missed.
In between, there was a spark of hope for the Kiwis through a flash of brilliance from five-eighth Benji Marshall, who was all tongue and terror during the haka. After 27 minutes, he terrified the Australians by sending New Zealand back-rower Sika Manu, the Kiwis’ only debutant, on his way to the tryline. It was brilliant but brief.
Eight minutes after half-time, normality resumed and the Australians scored through Israel Folau, his first of two tries. Lockyer was creating havoc with every touch, even if at 31 he was one of the oldest on the field, and the two players who made up the youngest ever Australian centre pairing had both scored.
Halfback Thurston, playing despite his uncle being killed over the weekend, played with the carefree nature which suits him best, even though it was clear he was entitled to have more than one care in the World Cup. His flick to Billy Slater on the hour was audacious, if a little fortuitous after the ball cannoned off the fullback’s thigh.
Not long before that, the Mexican wave had started. Next, the Kangaroos travel to Melbourne, Australia’s Mexico, to take on England. It will be kind of appropriate: the tournament hosts and the tournament bosses fleeing south over the border, wondering about the damage that was done the previous night.
AUSTRALIA 30 (I Folau 2, G Inglis, J Monaghan, B Slater tries; J Thurston 4, C Smith goals) bt NEW ZEALAND 6 (S Manu try; S Matai goal) at Sydney Football Stadium. Referee: A Klein. Crowd: 34,157.