Welcome Wembley return despite curse of the commentators

Still bristling from Channel 9’s insulting 45 minute highlights package of the Kangaroos vs. Kiwis opener last week, I was somewhat appeased to find the Wembley double-header televised live.  My eyes grew heavy sitting through the dour second half of the NZ vs. Wales clash, however, and I left it for the Foxtel IQ to take care of the Australia vs. England encounter in preparation for a more civilised 9am playback.

Staying up to all hours as a youngster in New Zealand to watch Wembley Tests and Challenge Cup finals live seemed a distant memory, but the hallowed football ground has certainly served up some of the great Test matches of the modern era.  Great Britain’s euphoric first Test victories over the Kangaroos in 1990 and 1994, and England’s 20-16 upset of Australia in the 1995 World Cup opener following a John Hopoate howler at Wembley account for three of the Green and Golds’ paltry seven Test losses during the 1990s.  Australia’s gripping wins in the 1992 and 1995 World Cup finals at the north-west London icon were two of the more memorable triumphs of Bob Fulton’s dominant reign as national coach.

The double-header represented the first international rugby league fixtures at Wembley since the first Test between the Australian Super League side and Great Britain in 1997, won 38-14 by the Laurie Daley-led Aussies.  The venue closed in 2000 and reopened in 2007 after major redevelopments.

My morning coffee took a bitter turn as Vossy and Joey transferred me to veteran Sky Sports commentators Eddie Hemmings and Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson.  The interminable duo’s outrageously biased calls have been the bane of my overseas internationals-viewing existence for over a decade, and this broadcast was in the Hall of Fame for seeing a game through English Rose-tinted glasses.

Newly-crowned RLIF Player of the Year Billy Slater produced a try-saving play worthy of his world’s best status in the opening stages, halting robust English back-rower Ben Westwood with a ball-and-all special, before executing a brilliant one-on-one steal.  But Slater’s Four-Nations campaign came to an abrupt end in the 11th minute as he launched a shoulder-charge at tryline-bound winger Ryan Hall, breaking his collarbone and immediately leaving the field.

The drama was enough for my fiancé to momentarily shift her attention from her book to the TV – few things in rugby league matter to her, but the welfare of the beautiful Billy is certainly an exception.  “Poor Billy!” she exclaimed in a tone that left me pondering whether I would receive the same sympathy if I broke my collarbone.

Veteran five-eighth Kevin Sinfield’s cut-out pass to Hall was exquisite and the hulking winger did superbly to slam the ball down just inside the corner-post after the jolt from Slater.  The score remained 4-0 after Sinfield’s unsuccessful conversion attempt, a deserving lead after England’s rousing start to the game.

Fortunately for the Kangaroos, they were able to replace one Churchill Medal-winning custodian with another, and Darius Boyd was one of Australia’s best filling in at the back.  Second-rower Luke Lewis replaced Boyd on the flank, evoking memories of his days as a flying teenage winger for the Panthers, and put the visitors on the board with a fine finish after slick inside work by Boyd and Greg Inglis.

It was certainly more positive than Lewis’ last foray as a winger in England – many will recall Kangaroos coach Chris Anderson inexplicably drafting St. Helens-based 34-year-old Darren Smith into the Australian side for the dead-rubber third Test of the 2003 Ashes series, despite having a fit and healthy Lewis in the squad.  Lewis eventually made his Test debut six years later in the forwards.

Ominous signs emerged on the half-hour mark when Darren Lockyer turned the ball inside to Tony Williams.  ‘T-Rex’ sent Wests Tigers’ English recruit Chris Heighington hurtling backwards like an extra in Jurassic Park in a disturbingly easy stroll to the line for a 12-4 lead

But England responded a minute from halftime when ultra-hyped Wigan fullback Sam Tomkins found space and flick-passed to Jack Reed.  The Brisbane rookie has already proved his worth to the England team in spades and his beautifully timed pass to Hall put the Leeds winger on a path to corner for his second try.

The slightest hint of an obstruction early in the second half had ‘Stevo’ clutching at straws as the video referee reviewed Johnathan Thurston’s brilliant sleight of hand to send Inglis over – sorry Stevo mate, but that’s a pretty clear T-R-Y.

The most controversial moment of the match arrived in the 48th minute when rookie international referee Henry Perenara, a former Kiwi Test forward and NRL journeyman, ruled a double-movement against England winger Tom Briscoe.  The line-ball decision probably should have been referred to the video ref, but if you were to believe ‘Stevo’s’ partner-in-crime Hemmings, the travesty cost England victory.  Australia has Joe ‘Chimpy’ Busch’s infamous no-try from the 1929-30 Kangaroo Tour, and now the Poms have Briscoe’s try-that-wasn’t of 2011.

 

The resumption of the Manly-Melbourne feud provided an interesting sidelight a couple of minutes later – Sea Eagles back-rower Anthony Watmough and Melbourne’s English utility and unlikely pugilist Gareth Widdop went toe-to-toe, sparking a mini-melee.  But Tony Williams’ high shot on Westwood sent the commentary team into a frothing tirade, demanding the Manly giant’s send-off – a histrionic sentiment echoed by England coach Steve McNamara after the game.

Paul Gallen’s subsequent try running off Cooper Cronk for a 24-8 lead did nothing for Eddie’s mood – today’s would be another match to file in England’s bulging dossier of hard-luck stories.  But Reed provided a glimmer of hope for the home side, adding another stunning try to his extraordinary rookie-season highlight reel.  He climbed over Boyd to claim a Rangi Chase bomb and ran 15 metres for his third try in as many Tests.

Maligned England halfback Chase – a Kiwi expat – had some nice touches, but a gamble to attempt to find touch from a 20-metre tap and a penalty conceded for illegally stripping the ball led directly to Williams’ and Inglis’ tries respectively, giving detractors of the 2011 Man of Steel further reason to deride.  He also had a pass intercepted by opposite number Thurston, who was brilliant throughout.  The headgeared maestro – my fiancé’s other footballing crush, despite “his heinous angel wings tattoo” – toyed with the English defence and kicked brilliantly in general play.

Sandwiched between late Australian tries to Boyd and Chris Lawrence, Reed laid on a try for Heighington with a deft pass.  There is so much to like about the gingernut Broncos centre – to use a Gould-ism he is a footballer first and athlete second, and exactly what the confidence-impaired England team needs.

Lawrence’s closing try provoked one last inevitable commentary diatribe after the Tigers centre’s potential double-movement was referred to the video ref.  Thurston’s sixth conversion from as many attempts rounded out the scoring at 36-20 – a deserved victory for a composed Kangaroos outfit that rarely looked under the pump.  It was a gallant effort from an English side that played the second half with a two-man bench and the misfiring Kiwis have their work cut out getting over the hosts for a final berth.

Of course, according to Eddie and ‘Stevo’ (and coach MacNamara), it was impossible to evaluate the game separate from the context of Briscoe’s no-try and Williams’ non-send-off.  I might have to establish a collection fund to get ‘Rabbs’ and ‘Sterlo’ to the 2013 World Cup.

Australia 36 (Lewis, Williams, Inlgis, Gallen, Boyd, Lawrence tries; Thurston 6/6 goals) defeated

England 20 (Hall 2, Reed, Heighington tries; Sinfield 2/4 goals).

Crowd: 42,344

 

Votes:

3 – Thurston (Aus)

2 – Watmough (Aus)

1 – Reed (Eng)

 

Comments

  1. Ian Hauser says:

    Will,

    An entertaining report! My secretary, an AFL type who knows nothing about rugby league, is a bit like your finacee – she drools over “Billy”. But, to be fair, there is a lot to admire – the tackle and strip on Westwood was sensational. Your lady shows good taste by also admiring JT – hopefully only for his consumate skills. Didn’t he have another blinder?

    The commentators may have been a bit over the top but they did admit that they were wearing their Union Jack boxers and so were less than neutral. In the Briscoe incident, I think they had good reason to be miffed.

    It seemed to me that the Aussies simply executed their plays better when the opportunities came. They seemed more patient whereas the Poms looked like they were trying for the miracle play too often, hence their higher error rate.

    The other area where the Australians were all over them was the power off the bench – Cronk was a real livewire, Shillington hit hard, Galloway is a good slogger, and Williams – well, he just rocked! By contrast, the Poms had Widdop off the bench – why isn’t he in the starting line-up?

    Jack Reed is a favourite of mine – the working class hero. He made one bad error missing Inglis but more than made up for it elsewhere.

    The Poms v Kiwis game should be a cracker!

  2. Greg Mallory says:

    Good report Will. I don’t think Ch 9 are doing the Wales v Australia game – Live Fox NZ v England, replay Fox Wales v Australia. I hope Cherry-Evans & the rest of the ‘Emus’ get a game. I’ll put my team on the Ian Hauser comments.

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