Unpretty Kiwis out of Four Nations

Getting rid of Foxtel for the summer during the week has already back-fired – no Channel 9 coverage of the England vs. New Zealand clash at Hull means I am forced to trundle down to the local drinking hole at 10am on Sunday morning to catch a replay.  The sticky carpet and faint odour of last night’s spilled drinks make this quasi-sports bar by day and tacky nightclub by night an unlikely venue to watch such a critical Test match.  The ghosts of dance-floor pashes only a few hours old hover nearby while I attempt to remedy my own mini-hangover with a coffee.

The silver lining of my incongruous viewing location is being spared of the mind-numbing twaddle of insufferable English commentary duo Eddie and ‘Stevo’.  Instead, the Max Classics music channel will be my soundtrack to the morning – Deee Lite’s ‘Groove is in the Heart’ replaces God Defend New Zealand, while the England players stand hand on heart to The Stranglers’ legendary ‘Golden Brown’ instead of God Save the Queen.

New Zealand looked to have jagged the first try inside two minutes, but an offside call by the video referee denied Keiran Foran a maiden Test try.  The Kiwis’ poor ball control and ill discipline afforded England all of the early running.  Ben Matulino’s high-tackle and serial niggler Jeremy Smith’s subsequent forearm on lightweight England fullback Sam Tomkins in the 5th minute set the tone for a spiteful contest.  Tomkins responded by running the NZ defence ragged throughout the opening quarter, ducking and weaving away from attempted tackles with consummate ease, before making a searing break in the 20th minute.

The visitors’ stout goal-line defence was finally breached just before the half-hour mark when a slick England backline movement created an overlap and allowed winger Tom Briscoe to slide over in the corner.  The lead was extended to six points after Kevin Sinfield’s booming sideline conversion.  Kiwi skipper Benji Marshall seemed more interested in unsettling former compatriot Rangi Chase than sparking his team’s attack, but the tactic worked when a play-the-ball scuffle between the pair allowed Isaac Luke to scythe through a gap for NZ’s best chance of the first half.

Fullback ace Kevin Locke spent much of the first half on the sideline and produced a glaring error when confronted with a bobbling ball immediately after his return.  More desperate last-ditch defence saw powerhouse England prop James Graham held up after he barged over under the posts in the ensuing set, while Locke left the field injured again soon after halftime.

Rugby league’s No. 1 easy target was in the firing line yet again on the stroke of halftime.  Whatever your views Isaac Luke’s golden point dive against the Cowboys and the recent mountain-out-of-a-molehill ‘missile’ controversy, Matt Cecchin’s penalty for Luke holding onto faux-Pom Chase’s leg was ridiculous, and putting him on report an embarrassing misuse of the system.  It seems Luke isn’t even allowed to tackle an opposition player around the legs when said player is running toward him these days.  Sinfield duly slotted the angled penalty goal attempt after the siren for an 8-0 advantage, while I attempt to suppress imagining what Eddie and ‘Stevo’ are saying for fear of pulling the 50-inch screen off the wall (a sports news highlights package later revealed ‘Stevo’ said Luke should have been sent off – a typically melodramatic response from the Great Britain and Penrith star of the 1970s).

The Magic Numbers’ twee indie classic ‘Forever Lost’ and the halftime delivery of pancakes and hash browns placates my mood somewhat, but I choked on my blueberries when England piggy-backed their way down-field soon after the resumption following a penalty against Marshall that would barely have attracted a caution in your local touch footy comp.  England capitalised immediately: Sinfield’s cross-field kick allowed Broncos centre Jack Reed to reproduce his aerial dynamics of a week earlier, handing the ball back for Ben Westwood to send Ryan Hall on a path to the corner.  The burly Leeds winger, who bagged a double seven days earlier with two brilliant put-downs, rebuffed the desperate challenge of Foran to expertly plant the ball with inches to spare.  Sinfield’s goalkicking masterclass continued to extend England’s lead to 14-0.

New Zealand finally began to exert consistent pressure on the hosts, forcing two goal-line drop-outs before winger Jason Nightingale put the Kiwis on the board with a spectacular airborne finish, made possible by stand-in fullback Gerard Beale’s beautiful cut-out pass.

But England extinguished the Kiwis’ flimsy comeback hopes with two tries in the final seven minutes.  James Graham could not be denied by the video referee again after a powerful charge, despite inconclusive replay evidence that he had grounded the ball (and a dubious one-on-one strip ruling that favoured England two plays earlier), before Jamie Jones-Buchanan split the NZ defence to send Tomkins under the posts for a well-deserved try to ice a convincing victory.  Melbourne interchange Gareth Widdop appeared to deliver the final insult in the last minute by picking up a loose ball and streaking away, but referee Cecchin mercifully ruled a New Zealand penalty.

The last strains of Stereophonics’ melancholy 2003 hit ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ seems an appropriate outro for the black-and-whites as the clock winds down to fulltime.  But there will be no tomorrow for the Kiwis as the defending Four-Nations champs depart a week earlier than they would have hoped after a dismal 22-point defeat, with only two wins against France, one against Wales and a draw against Australia amongst ten Tests to show for their last three trips to the Northern Hemisphere.  A visibly disappointed Stephen Kearney has two years to find the key to winning in England before the Kiwis launch their World Cup defence there in 2013, while claims of NZ’s burgeoning status as rugby league’s preeminent nation – based on the Warriors’ rise and the Kiwis’ Four-Nations and World Cup successes – have severely stagnated.

While the scoreline flattered England and the rub of the whistle went against them, the Kiwis were deserving losers.  Cheap penalties, poor handling and a dreadful kicking game plagued their performance, while the back three’s aversion to catching the high ball was mind-boggling and repeatedly put their team-mates under pressure.  Rugged back-rower Sika Manu was New Zealand’s standout forward – as he has been for the entire tournament – while Beale and Nightingale were courageous at the back, despite their Quaker-ish attitude to taking bombs.

Much of the blame for the Kiwis’ rudderless display has to be attributed to underperforming halves Marshall and Foran.  Marshall’s performances have been devoid of the authority that carried NZ to Four-Nations glory 12 months ago and Foran has struggled with the responsibility of steering a team around the park that the No. 7 jersey entails.  Perhaps Foran is distracted by the shambles unfolding at Manly, but only a sizzling start to 2012 will prevent boom Warrior Shaun Johnson from snatching the Kiwi halfback spot next May.

The England side, for their part, was superb.  Prop James Graham’s brilliant form combined with Des Hasler premature arrival has made November a month of mouth-watering daydreams of 2012 glories for Canterbury fans – the red-headed tank racked up 33 tackles (no misses) and 20 carries for 156 metres.  Second-row pairing Westwood and Jon Wilkin more than made up for Gareth Ellis’ injury withdrawal, Tomkins was electrifying from fullback and five-eighth Sinfield exhibited the control his Kiwi counterparts lacked.

England and smarmy coach Steve McNamara will be outwardly confident of an upset against Australia next weekend and the nation’s first success in a major international tournament since Great Britain claimed the 1972 World Cup, but another Elland Road final thrashing looms for the long-suffering Poms.  They took 73 minutes to put away a badly out-of-sorts NZ outfit despite a plethora of try-scoring opportunities and do not possess the unpredictable brilliance that spearheaded the Kiwis’ recent final victories over the Kangaroos.

Nothing left for me to do but peel my jandals off the dodgy carpet and sulk my way out of the pub to the echoes of TLC’s diabolical #1 R&B smash of the ‘90s ‘Unpretty’ – an apt description of the performance I had just endured from my team.

Comments

  1. Ian Hauser says:

    Will,

    Another enjoyable report, as we’ve come to expect. Not having pay-tv, I didn’t see much more than a few highlights. Channel 9 was too bloody stingy to even show the Australia v Wales game.

    Press reports support your contention that not only did England deserve to win but also Marshall and Foran were MIA again. Foran has had a forgettable series! I still think he’s a very good player who we’ll see a lot of in the coming years.

    For the Poms, it sounds like my obsession, Jack Reed, had another good one and Beale was useful. The Broncos are getting some helpful, free professional development for these two and Alex Glen.

    In the final, do you think the Poms will be able to match up in the forwards? That’s the big question for me. They seemed to go ok against NZ but what was the quality of the opposition like? Too busy head hunting?

    Queensland supporters are also happy that our next Origin halves pairing, Thurston and Cronk, are getting to know each other better courtesy of this series.

    As for the venue where you watched the game, it sounds like you were a few hours too late to get pashed and a few hours too early to get pissed. And your team lost as well. Bugger!

  2. Cheers Ian,

    I think England can match Australia in the forwards up the middle – as long as James Graham can play more than half a game (he went off at halftime in the pool game against the Kangaroos). He was phenomenal against the Kiwis and from what I’ve seen in this tournament he is up there with the world’s best props. It’s a tough, honest pack, but lacks the game-breaking qualities their Aussie counterparts possess. The likes of Watmough, Lewis, Williams and Thaiday gives the Australian engine-room the edge.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head – the quality of their Kiwi opposition was nowhere near the standard they’ll face this weekend. NZ was pretty dreadful with the exception of Sika Manu. The fact that the Kiwis were so bad but were still well in the contest with eight or so minutes to go is a bit of a worry for England, who had all the possession and territory.

    Although Sam Tomkins has been very good, England seem to be miles behind as far as inventive attack goes. Thurston, Lockyer and Smith (plus Cronk when he comes on) have it all over their opposites. Reed has far exceeded expectations and Ryan Hall is a tremendous finisher, but the Poms’ three-quarter line is quite non-threatening on the left-hand side. McNamara doesn’t seem to know how to use Widdop off the bench effectively either.

    My prediction is that England will stay with Australia for the first hour, before getting lapped – much like the 2009 final. The Lockyer farewell factor is enough alone to get the Kangaroos over the line and I’ll be soaking up every last second of watching the great man play.

    Enjoy the game mate, I look forward to your report.

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