Benji back to form in half-baked victory

 by Will Evans

My childhood recollections of seeing my heroes in black and white play at Wembley aren’t great.  The Kiwis approached the first Test of the 1993 away series against Great Britain with confidence after pushing Australia earlier in the year and drawing a home series with the Lions one-all the previous season.  But, in the national side’s only match at the sacred venue prior to the Four-Nations clash with Wales, the Kiwis were pitiful in a 17-0 defeat to a Jason Robinson-inspired Great Britain outfit (for the record, current NZ coach Stephen Kearney made his first international start in the match and my distant cousin Jason Mackie made his Test debut).  It was a buzz-killer for a 12-year-old in Central Otago trying to talk up league to my union-mad schoolmates.  But after 18 years, I was excited to see the boys return to the spiritual home of football  – particularly when victory is almost certainly assured against gutsy minnows Wales. 

 

It was Wales’ first appearance at Wembley since a 51-19 trouncing at the hands of the touring 1933-34 Kangaroos.  Sid ‘Joe’ Pearce scored three tries and the legendary Dave Brown crossed for a try and kicked nine goals for an Australian side containing fellow all-time greats Vic Hey, Wally Prigg and Ray Stehr, while Wales featured British Hall of Famers Jim Sullivan and Gus Risman.  Meanwhile, this year’s Four-Nations encounter is the first between Wales and NZ since 2002, when the touring Kiwis prevailed 50-22 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

 

The national anthem close-ups revealed wholehearted Movember attempts – with varying degrees of success – by Jeremy Smith (Prince), Jason Nightingale (Magnum P.I.), Sika Manu (Mr. Miyagi) and Nathan Fien (myself at 16).  But the most striking follicular transformation came courtesy of Parramatta cult hero Fuifui Moimoi, who was sporting a sumo wrestler-style bun.  I tuned out to the last refrains of God Defend New Zealand while I daydreamed about Fuifui and George Rose squaring off in front of a baying Japanese crowd.

 

Australian coach Tim Sheens would have winced as his Wests Tigers lynchpin Benji Marshall threaded through an inch-perfect grubber for Jason Nightingale to score the opening try in the fourth minute.  Firstly, the arcing kick was eerily similar to the one Marshall served up on a platter for the Saints winger in last year’s Four-Nations final, sparking a stunning 16-12 comeback defeat of Sheens’ Kangaroos.  But secondly – and more concerning for the Australian side – it started a form reversal for the out-of-sorts Kiwi skipper.

 

Ian Hauser highlighted Marshall’s and halves partner Keiran Foran’s conspicuously absent performances in the two recent losses to Australia, but Marshall rediscovered his rhythm in attack in a mesmerising opening forty minutes, forcing multiple line dropouts, producing superb short balls in tries to Kevin Locke and Gerard Beale, and hoisting a towering bomb that led to Sika Manu’s second try.  The same could not be said for his enigmatic goalkicking, however – he landed four from seven as Kiwi fans yearned for the days Ridge, Halligan and Botica.  But Sheens will be wary – Marshall’s form was patchy in the lead-up to the 2010 final before he single-handedly destroyed the Kangaroos in a performance that secured the Golden Boot.

 

Foran was noticeably quiet again.  The Sea Eagles pivot has become accustomed to nothing but gushing plaudits in his short career (he was described as a mix of Andrew Johns, Des Hasler and Geoff Toovey earlier this season – surely the most superfluous appraisal since former Dragons coach Andrew Farrar said his hooker Nathan Brown was Dally M, Churchill and Gasnier rolled into one), but he appears to be struggling to take control without the Manly machine around him.

 

Quicksilver fullback Kevin Locke scored the Kiwis’ second try with a stunning burst of acceleration and an untouchable swerve.  NZ coaching icon Graham Lowe compared Locke to Billy Slater some time ago; it was a comment that raised a few eyebrows, but at the risk of being shouted down by the seemingly endless line of Billy-admirers, I would hazard to declare 22-year-old Locke a more complete player than Slater at the same age (calm down everyone, I said ‘at the same age’).

 

Dynamic Storm forward Sika Manu, who besides Locke was the only Kiwi player to emerge from the 42-6 thrashing in Newcastle with his reputation intact, made a mockery of the Welsh defence with a painfully easy  first half double in quick succession.  Alex Glenn carried on the fine tradition of NZ back-rowers starring in the centres (SBW, Mannering, Brown et al), making a break to send Gerard Beale in for his first Test try.  23-year-old Glenn, who captained the Broncos earlier this year, never plays a bad game and his versatility should ensure he is one of the first picked in the Kiwi Test side for years to come.

 

Wales periodically produces players of rare talent that have lit up the international stage – Gus Risman, Jim Sullivan, Billy Boston, Clive Sullivan, David Watkins, Jonathan Davies, Iestyn Harris, Keiron Cunningham – and the current version is veteran five-eighth and captain Lee Briers.  The talismanic Warrington playmaker has been at the heart of most of the plucky Welsh side’s inventive play so far in the Four-Nations.  He has been ably backed by some players that will be familiar to Australian followers – halfback Matt Seamark, who guided Wynnum Manly to Queensland Cup grand final success this season, young Cronulla back-rower Tyson Frizzell (who left the field with a wrist injury) and Mackay Cutters import Neil Budsworth, a former Harlequins and Celtic Crusaders hooker.

 

Unfortunately, the second half produced few highlights – a frustrating watch given its post-midnight timeslot in Australia – with the notable exception of man of the match Thomas Leuluai.  The Wigan hooker set up both tries after the break, firing a wonderful long pass for Beale to slide over for his second and cutting up the Welsh defence to send Nathan Fien on a comfortable stroll to the line.

 

The Kiwis would have been frustrated at not improving their points differential in a flat second stanza display (as it happened, Australia’s victory over England made for-and-against percentages redundant) and it is debatable whether their overall performance warrants favouritism against England next week.  England certainly tested the Kangaroos more than the Kiwis did, while the last 11 matches between New Zealand and England or Great Britain have gone the way of the home side.  The most tangible negative to come out of the Kiwis’ victory was the loss of reliable prop Sam McKendry for the remainder of the tournament after he suffered a broken jaw.

 

New Zealand 36 (Manu 2, Beale 2, Nightingale, Locke, Fien tries; Marshall 4/7 goals)

defeated

Wales 0

 

Votes:

3 – Leuluai (NZ)

2 – Marshall (NZ)

1 – Smith (NZ)

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Ian Hauser says:

    Will,

    Not having seen this game, I enjoyed your match report but equally appreciated the historical insights. Frano Botica – now there’s a blast from the past, and I laughed out loud at the image of Fuifui and Big George doing the sumo waltz – perhaps next year’s pre-GF entertainment should their respective sides not play off for the title?

    As I suggested elsewhere, your report supports my contention that Benji is just foxing ahead of the final, should the Kiwis get there. After hearing today that Foran may follow Des Hasler to the Bulldogs and that Des may get the flick from Manly sooner rather than later perhaps explains Foran’s modest form of late.

    This weekend? Toss of the coin, or or a one way romp? Benji or Tomkins? I think the Kiwis have it in the forwards, even without McKendry, and so should provide Marshall with the platform he needs to take it off the very game Poms. Australians will be hoping they flog the shit out of each other ahead of the final.

    Australia v Wales? Hard to get interested but I’ll watch anyway.

    I look forward to your Poms v Kiwis report.

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