Could the NZ halves please stand up?

After watching the opening game of the Four Nations tournament between Australia and New Zealand, I’m left with a puzzle: is Benji Marshall badly out of form, injured or just foxing? I mean, how can someone who is supposed to be one of the two or three best players in the world put in two total shockers in a row? If anything, he was worse today than a fortnight ago in the Newcastle flogging – missing tackles, not running the football, forward passes, dropped balls.

Come to think about it, what about Kieran Foran – he’s hardly shown his NRL form either, has he? Apart from a couple of well-placed kicks and some intermittent useful defence, he’s hardly been a spark at half-back for the Kiwis. Admittedly he’s playing behind a pack that’s too often on the back foot, but even when the Kiwis fortuitously got into the game in the second half, where were Foran and Marshall to come up with one, just one, slick play to turn the match around completely?

Or have the Aussies got the measure of the dynamic duo? Something’s a bit fishy, methinks. Maybe we should just skip the preliminary rounds and bring on the final between these two teams to see what the answer to the puzzle is. Perhaps only the final can bring out the best in the New Zealand halves. That’s probably a bit disrespectful to the Poms who had a strong win over Wales in their opener. They just might spring an upset in a fortnight to end the Kiwi campaign, resolving the puzzle in the process.

This was not a good game to watch and served only to see which of the two teams will have the advantage of the easier route to the final. Ball control was ordinary, the officials had a shocker (most notably in the non-policing of the play the ball), and neither team fully demonstrated their attacking prowess. Maybe it was just about winning, whatever the method. Given the talent on show, it was a disappointing exhibition.

The futility of the modern scrum was exposed early on when the Aussies packed down with Watmough at hooker and Smith at lock – I thought they wore their numbers the other way around! Then the Australians were penalised for striking at the ball in a scrum. The English commentators got the irony perfectly  – “Imagine – striking in the scrum!” Dinkum hookers of yesteryear must cringe (at least) or weep, or both. Can’t you hear Roy and H. G. – “It’s a joke!”

The tale of the match? Australia started strongly, scored within two minutes and got out to 16 – 0 by half-time with three tries from running play. Too big, too strong, too fast. The Kiwis came back in the second half with two tries (one from a kick and the other from broken play after a kick) to get close and have the momentum but couldn’t find the magic play (where were you, Benji?). Instead, given half a sniff, the Kangaroos were over and then iced it with a late one.

The star of the match was Thurston as he guided the Australians around the park and created scoring opportunities. In the first half, his subtle pass to put Williams into a gap before backing up to score himself was all class. In the second half, with the match in the balance, he ran the ball, delayed his pass, drew the defence, and then set Lawrence free to give Boyd a clear run to the line.

Others to play well for Australia were Smith with over 50 tackles for the match plus several good kicks from dummy-half, Lewis and Thaiday as ball-runners and tough defenders, Scott with his punishing work up the middle, the tireless Gallan, and Lockyer with his precise kicking to the corners. Williams and Galloway were strong off the bench. Watmough undid lots of energetic work by conceding several silly penalties.

For the Kiwis, Brown gave his all in both attack and defence. Should he play in the back row to give the pack some starch or is he the strong running centre he’s been forced to become? Locke and Beale looked better for the experience of last week while McKendry, Matulino and Manu had their moments. Isaac Luke continues to be enigmatic with a few good darts from the play-the-ball and his won’t-lie-down approach, but he blots it all by over-playing his hand. Another dubious torpedo tackle (to put it very politely) did little to enhance his reputation.

In the end, the Kiwis were better than they were at Newcastle but still looked like coming second on the day. The Aussies weren’t as good but did enough when the critical moment came. But the puzzle is still there ahead of a possible rematch in the final – will Marshall and Foran show up? If they do, then we’ll see a really good game.

Australia 26 (Tries: Scott, Williams, Thurston, Boyd, Uate Goals: Thurston 3/5)
New Zealand 12 (Tries: Nightingale, Faifai Loa Goals: Marshall 2/2)

Venue: Halliwell Stadium, Warrington
Crowd: 12,491
Votes: 3 – Thurston (Aus), Lewis (Aus), Brown (NZ)

About Ian Hauser

A happily retired ex-teacher with a (very) modest sporting CV. A Queenslander through and through who looks for those beautiful moments in sport (and life) that capture the spirit rather than the law of the game. Love reading and good wine. I run my own editing service for aspiring writers. Check me out at writerightediting.com.au

Leave a Comment

*