Farewell Fit for a Legend

Darren Lockyer’s farewell cavalcade finally came to a triumphant end at the fitting venue of Elland Road. The hallowed Leeds ground was the scene of arguably Lockyer’s greatest performance – Australia’s 44-4 thrashing of Great Britain in the 2004 Tri-Nations final. Lockyer laid on five tries, scored one himself and kicked six goals as Australia raced to a 38-0 halftime lead, compelling the Immortal Bob Fulton to label it “the most dominant performance by any player in the history of the game.”

The skipper’s performance in the Kangaroos’ 30-8 victory over a plucky but outclassed England side in the Four-Nations decider was certainly understated in comparison, but his influence was as prevalent as ever as he extended his world record to 59 Tests (38 as captain).

The scoring opened in familiar fashion for an Anglo-Australian Test match – the Kangaroos crossed inside four minutes when Jharal Yow Yeh outjumped opposing winger Tom Briscoe to bat the ball back to Chris Lawrence, who sent a rampaging Sam Thaiday over for his maiden Test try in his 16th Test. My pre-match resolution to attempt to appreciate Eddie and Stevo’s impassioned yet ludicrously biased commentary went out the window as soon as the first replay of Thaiday’s try aired. Referee Matt Ceechin confidently pointed to the spot without referring it to the video ref and Eddie preposterously cried foul over Thaiday supposedly being offside. Johnathan Thurston’s angled conversion saw him become just the sixth player to bring up 200 Test points for Australia.

Australia had a try disallowed after a sweeping backline movement and hands quicker than a street hustler from Greg Inglis, when Akuila Uate’s leg cut the sideline chalk. The eye in the sky gave England a massive leg up with two of the most diabolical decisions in the 15 seasons the video referee system has been in operation. Sam Tomkins was bamboozled by a Lockyer bomb in front of England’s goalposts in the 21st minute and Lawrence scooped up the loose ball to dot down, but the video referee somehow adjudged an offside Australian chaser to be within ten metres of Tomkins and brought up the NO TRY screen.

Then came the most laughable penalty try awarded since French referee Marcel Chanfreau sprinted to the goalmouth at Mt. Smart Stadium in 1995 in reaction to a late tackle 30 metres out from the tryline, allowing his countrymen to escape with a 16-all draw against New Zealand. England’s first period of sustained pressure on Australia’s line culminated in beefy winger Ryan Hall bursting through the head-high tackle of Thurston, only to lose the ball over the tryline after a desperate lunge by back-rower Luke Lewis. The video referee ignored the fundamental criterion of awarding a penalty try: it must be certain a try would have been scored. Thurston’s clumsy challenge warranted a penalty, but it was inconsequential to Hall’s bombing of the try. Eddie and Stevo were quick to compare the incident to the famous penalty try correctly awarded to Melbourne in the 1999 grand final – the difference there, however, was that Craig Smith was knocked unconscious by Saints winger Jamie Ainscough’s high tackle in the in-goal and dropped the ball as a result.

Thurston landed a penalty on halftime for a slender 8-6 lead, but after soaking up ten minutes of belated media sense from Vossy and Sterlo, England locked up the scoreboard early in the second half when Luke Lewis was pinged for an innocuous challenge on Gareth Ellis as the pair competed for a loose ball.

But England’s bid for their first major trophy in 39 years unravelled with an all-too-common second half collapse. Lockyer unleashed his pet play one last time, swinging a second-man pass to fullback Darius Boyd – as he has done so many times with No. 1s Hunt, Slater and Hoffman – and the Knights-bound ace fired a superb cut-out ball for Yow Yeh to break the deadlock with 23 minutes remaining, atoning for another contentious no-try ruling against the Broncos winger three minutes earlier.

Thurston handled twice before backing up a Paul Gallen bust to score under the posts in the 62nd minute, taking him past Graeme Langlands as the fourth-highest pointscorer in Test history, and combined with Anthony Watmough to send Greg Inglis over for his 17th try in just 19 Test appearances.

With the result already sealed, Lockyer had one last piece of magic up his sleeve. Ninety seconds remained when Lockyer grubbered into the upright and regathered to score, extending his Test tryscoring record to 35 touchdowns and prompting a joyous response from his loyal charges. Lockyer’s farewells in each arena have been the stuff of fairytales – his masterful display in the Origin decider spearheaded Queensland’s emphatic victory at Suncorp, while his final act in a Broncos jersey was kicking the first-ever golden point field goal in a finals match to eliminate the Dragons at the same ground, despite carrying a freshly broken cheekbone. But in perhaps the least fitting parting play in the history of the game, Lockyer shanked the conversion attempt from adjacent to the uprights, extracting a wry smile from the great man.

The Kangaroo forward pack was superb, driven by non-stop displays by Gallen and Thaiday. They were ably matched by their English counterparts – James Graham and Gareth Ellis were typically strong – but the home side’s backline needs a complete overhaul. Kevin Sinfield and Rangi Chase lacked imagination in the halves and were thoroughly outplayed by Lockyer and Thurston, while their kicking game in Australia’s half was abominable. Although a capable finisher, Hall offers little else on the flank, while Briscoe is surely one of the most ordinary wingers in Test history. Based on his form in this tournament, it is hard to believe Briscoe scored 19 tries for Hull this season and was named in the Super League Dream Team. His club-mate and fellow Dream Teamer, centre Kirk Yeaman, is similarly nondescript.

Broncos centre Jack Reed was a shining light in England’s three-quarter line throughout the tournament and should be the first England back chosen next year, along with rarely-used interchange Gareth Widdop, who will replace Tomkins in the No. 1 should the livewire switch to rugby union. England’s No. 1 strike weapon Tomkins was barely sighted in attack in the final – the former five-eighth suffered a Ben Barba-esque confidence slump after dropping several high balls.

Cameron Smith was arguably the most influential player on the field, cutting England to ribbons out of dummy-half and controlling play superbly around the ruck in a dominant performance by Australia’s next long-term Test skipper.

But it was Lockyer’s day – his last in competitive rugby league – and it was fitting that he returned Australia to the top of the international rugby league tree in his final match. The ever-humble captain accepted the trophy and paid tribute to the English fans that he has so often left heartbroken in the last 15 seasons, departing with his familiar farewell sign-off “thank you and goodbye.” It is unlikely we will see another like Lockyer – both in the sheer level of his achievements and in the grace and humility he has displayed in an incomparable career – and after a seemingly endless procession of farewells and ‘lasts’, we finally say goodbye to a true rugby league legend, one of the greatest of all time, for the last time.

Comments

  1. Will,

    Amidst a very good match coverage, I particularly enjoyed your evaluation of Lockyer. I wanted to write something about him, too, but as a Broncos, Queensland and Australia supporter, it’s hard for me to be objective. Yes, Lockyer’s impressive array of records tells no lie but it’s probably better for a comparative “outsider” like you to make the calls on his character and contributions. I agree that we may not see his likes again for quite some time – and if so, then we’ll certainly appreciate what we were privileged to witness and know that he got the accolades he deserved.

    Isn’t Cameron Smith something special? Understated, tackles relentlessly, incisive out of dummy half, good kicking game, always creating pressure, and a pretty cool head. Seemingly, he’s always one of the best three on the field. Will he be challenged for the Australian captaincy by Gallen?

    As much as I have disliked Gallen (he’s a New South Welshman), I have to concede that he has possibly been the most improved of the experienced players in Australia this year. His talent and determination have never been doubted but, in the past, you could always count on Gallen to give away silly penalties because he had a short fuse. Quite probably the captaincy of NSW has been the making of him, bringing a sense of responsiblity to his game. I’ve had to change my opinion of him based on what we’ve seen this year. Watmough could take a lesson or two from his example.

    And what about Darius Boyd? He slips under the radar a bit but played so well in the Final that at one stage I thought, “Billy who?” – a mild heresy, I know, but Boyd concedes little to Slater as a fullback. Billy probably has a bit on him as a defender although I’m reminded of Boyd’s tackles on Gasnier in Origin this year – good reads, in his face and punishing to put Gaz most decidedly on his backside. Billy has more charisma, physical presence and flash about him but Boyd is safe, sure, and chimes into the backline beautifully – but, then, if you had Lockyer throwing second man passes to you, most players would look good.

    Thaiday, Lewis, Lawrence, Cronk, the list goes on. There’s certainly a lot of wonderful talent around. Roll on 2012!

  2. Ian. You can’t have read much of the Almanckers’ work.

    Having a vested interest in the team/player you are writing about is almost a pre-requisite…

  3. Yes, sorry if you feel misled Ian, but I can confirm that there was nothing impartial about my appraisal of Lockyer’s career. Despite being a proud Kiwi, I have been a rabid Brisbane and Queensland supporter since 1990, while Lockyer is my favourite player of all time. In fact, during the 2000s I felt conflicted cheering against him when he played for Australia against the Kiwis. That all changed when I moved to Brisbane – the anti-Kiwi sentiment over here ramped up my patriotism tenfold – but I still love to see Locky carving up the Poms. So it wasn’t quite an outsider’s perspective, but a tribute from an unabashed fan.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Paul Gallen, formerly one of my most disliked players. I can’t help but admire the quality and consistency of his performances at all levels over the last couple of years. He has removed the rubbish from his game and become a genuine leader, the best forward in the game in my opinion.

    Boyd is a quality understudy to Slater for Queensland and Australia, although personally I would love to see Jarryd Hayne return to his 2009 form and challenge Billy’s supremacy again. But Boyd’s performances remedied a potentially disastrous injury situation for Australia during the tournament and was rock solid at the back.

    I can’t wait for 2012 either – plenty of exciting up-and-coming talent and what is set to be the most wide open premiership race in recent memory.

  4. It was a fantastic game, not sure why the first and second halves were so different. The bottom line is that England really only scored a penalty goal.

    One big highlight were the National Anthems, 100% right, massed band and choir, and all boys sang and knew the words. Finally Rugby League has matched it with Rugby. NRL administrators note, that is the way to play the Anthem. Like a battle cry!!

    TV coverage of early games in the contest left a lot to be desired.

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