Almanac Rugby League – The Big Weekend’s Wash-up

I think I’ve had enough footy to get me through to next weekend! Five big games, multiples of that number in dramatic moments, and an off-field episode to make you think twice about what’s important in life. Let’s look firstly at the three international matches played on Saturday before revisiting the two State of Origin clashes.


New Zealand Kiwis v Tonga Mate Ma’a: Kiwi Spine Taps Tenacious Tongans 34-14


Benji Marshall returned to the NZ national team for the first time in almost seven years, and didn’t it show. Have a look at the footage of Benji during the national anthem to see just how much it meant to him. Then he was given the honour of leading the team haka. Once the game got underway, he teamed up with his halves partner Shaun Johnson (3 tries) and dynamic No. 9 Brandon Smith (1 try) to slice and dice their Tongan counterparts after the two forward packs had nullified each other in a ferocious encounter up front. In fact, this trio dominated the game to such an extent that Tuivasa-Sheck and Watene-Zelezniak, game breakers in their own right, were able to be mere support players rather than go-to men.


For me, Smith was man-of-the-match because of his blistering first half performance when the game was there to be won. He ran out of dummy half like Damien Cook, he fended, he stepped, he swerved, he fed his backline beautifully and he scored a great individual try. His defence was strong and uncompromising. Benji chose his moments wisely to inject himself  with deft short passes interspersed with longer, millimetre-accurate bullets to put his runners in space. Johnson was a constant danger, at least twice outwitting his opponent with feints and steps to score effortlessly. The Kiwi forwards deserve credit for at least holding, if not perhaps shading, their equally impressive Tongan counterparts. A very good team effort!


The Tongans were far from disgraced and there was certainly no lack of effort. Their forwards, in particular, Taukeiaho, Taumalolo and Pangai Jnr were relentless in trying to move their team upfield. In the backs, Tupou, Hopoate and Staggs accounted well for themselves. But they got smashed in the halves and couldn’t find the structure or method to get through or around the excellent defence. Tonga finished the match strongly but the game was already long gone. Tried hard, done good, but not good enough.


Referee Ben Cummins had a very good game.


Crowd: 23,624


Fiji Bati v The Lebanon Cedars: Fijians Wing It Over Gritty Cedars 58-14


The team sheets suggested that this would be one way traffic, and so it panned out. The Fijians were simply too big, too strong, too fast, too everything for their game and gritty Lebanese opponents. The Bati scored at the rate of a point per minute for most of the first half against a single crossing by the Cedars and it was all over at 34-4 at oranges. The Lebanon put up a much better effort in dominating long stretches of the second half but ran out of petrol to concede the last three tries of the game.


It was an all-round Fijian effort but three players deserve special mention. Wingers Vunivalu and Sivo each scored two tries in powerful and spectacular style. Vunivalu went in for two textbook winger’s tries, firstly running on to a great pass and later completing a sweeping backline movement. But he blotted his copybook when he gave away a few silly penalties. Sivo soared over his opponent for the first of his brace while the second came from a powerful angled run on a set play. He also ran with great power in general play with one such burst leading to Kikau’s try midway through the first half. But the find of the match was Brandon Wakeham who put on a five-eighth masterclass to belie his relative inexperience. Admittedly he played behind a dominant forward unit but his poise, decision-making and execution while running, passing or kicking left nothing to be desired. He ended the day with a try and nine goals from ten attempts. Buy shares in this bloke if you can.


The Lebanon deserve credit for their second half performance. Against the odds, they regathered, competed and, for a time, dominated. Tim Mannah was huge, as tough as teak, an old-fashioned upfront grunt who gave everything. Wily veteran Robbie Farah also tried to energise his team in his international farewell. Michael Lichaa tried to guide his team-mates around and lost no friends on this display. In the backs, Lockwood and Miski (2 tries) stood out. But, in the end, this was hardly a level playing field in either manpower or ability.


Veteran referee Matt Cecchin was his usual accomplished self.


Toa Samoa v PNG Kumuls: Samoa Break Free Late to Down Bruising Kumuls 24-6


The final scoreline of 24-6 belies the gruelling struggle played out between these two rugged, bruising teams. Samoa began well, the Kumuls fought back and there was a struggle for supremacy before the men in blue, led by powerful prop Junior Paulo, dominated the last fifteen minutes to record their win.


On paper, Samoa boasted the more experienced, NRL-hardened outfit but the Kumuls are proud and determined. Initially it appeared that the Samoan forwards would be too big and powerful, especially with Paulo rampaging his way ahead with every touch. It was their fleet-footed hooker Luai who opened the scoring with a weaving run in broken play after a late off-load. Midway through the first half, interchange player Aloiai produced a powerful, individual burst to put his side twelve points clear. It looked ominous. But the Kumul’s Wapi, one of the smallest players on the field, scampered out of dummy-half close to the line to get the PNG side back in the game before half-time. The Kumuls had been lacking in discipline and were a tad unstructured, so they did well to go in at only 6-12 down. A see-sawing struggle provided great entertainment for the next thirty minutes of play. It took another unstoppable run by Paulo in the 66th minute to break the stalemate and give Samoa the momentum that saw them score again via Harris-Tevita (in unusual circumstances) to seal it late.


For Samoa, Paulo was well supported upfront by Taupau and Laui while Ese’ese did well off the bench. In the backs, Hunt was strong in both attack and defence while Milford, Isaako and Nofoaluma all had their moments. The Kumuls are hard men, unafraid to get in and hit hard. They were best served by Moses Meninga, Segeyaro, Wapi and, off the bench, Albert. Better discipline and sticking to their game plan will see them do better. But, in the end, the Samoans kept their nerve, stuck to their plan and finished the stronger. A tough, entertaining game.


Referee Adam Gee did well, especially on a couple of occasions when tempers simmered.


Crowd: 8,408



New South Wales v Queensland Women’s State of Origin 2019: Back to Back Blues 14-4


An excellent crowd of 10,515 turned out at North Sydney Oval to see NSW down Queensland by 14-4 in the annual State of Origin clash. Although not reaching the dazzling heights of last year’s classic encounter, the women’s game put on a tough and tense clash which could have gone either way until NSW took their chances to wrest control and go back-to-back.


I had a feeling after the 2018 game that Queensland seemed to have the grunt and power up front while NSW had the speed and skills out wide. That’s how it started again this time. Queensland had the better of a rugged, somewhat dour and intriguing first half aided by a useful breeze but could only put four points on the board via a Tazmin Gray try after 25 minutes. But, really, there was nothing in it. Both teams had a try disallowed (correctly), Queensland in the first half and NSW early in the second half.


After the break, NSW looked better, running with more purpose and moving it wide to their strengths. After ten minutes, a long cut-out pass from Kirra Dibb found Jessica Sergis on the fly and she crossed in the corner for 4-4. The turning point came five minutes later on the last tackle for NSW. A scrappy muddle of disorganised passes and loss of territory eventually ended with a desperate kick which, against the odds, resulted in a 40/30 gain and retained possession for the Blues. In the ensuing set, a good, wide spread saw Shakiah Tungai atone for an earlier blooper to cross out wide for an 8-4 lead. NSW was clearly on the front foot while the Maroons were visibly tiring. Blues half Maddie Studdon soon caught the Queenslanders napping and scurried through for a good individual try near the posts. The conversion made it 14-4 with less than ten minutes on the clock. The Maroons gave it their all but lost their structure and made mistakes, often in good position, allowing the Blues to hold on and take the game.


The NSW Blues deserved their win after a strong second half effort; Queensland had their opportunities but couldn’t find the right plays in the right parts of the field to turn pressure into points. For the winners, Maddie Studdon was everywhere and plays a big game well beyond her diminutive presence. She was a worthy winner of the  Nellie Doherty Medal. Sergis and Tungai always looked threatening on the wings. In the pack, Simaima Taufua, Hollie Wheeler and Millie Boyle were outstanding, gaining big metres in attack and hitting hard in defence. Kezie Apps led her team well with irrepressible energy (and, seemingly, joy!). Debutant Dibb acquitted herself well.


For the Maroons, forwards Heather Ballinger, Steph Hancock and bench player Chelsea Lenarduzzi took it up to the NSW pack with powerful, straight running. Brittany Breayley was a livewire but also well marked by her opponents. Chelsea Baker was probably the standout in the backs. The halves rarely clicked and Ali Brigginshaw, who went into the game under an injury cloud, was not her usual dominant self. She also seemed out of place at No. 6 – seven is her natural spot.


This was a tussle not unlike traditional men’s State of Origin – rugged, no quarter given, dour at times, but nevertheless enthralling. The women play in great spirit and, as I’ve mentioned on other occasions, do not resort to the unattractive histrionics of their male counterparts. The ladies just get in and get it done. Full marks!


Referees Grant Atkins and Belinda Sharpe did a very good job. It was very pleasing to finally see Sharpe given an on-field whistle in a big game. More of that, please. (And maybe next year’s clash in Brisbane, if you don’t mind.)


Crowd: 10,515


NSW Blues v Queensland Maroons – Game 2, 2019: Blues Destroy Hapless Maroons 38-6


The NRL, in its wisdom, sold the rights to Game 2 of this year’s State of Origin series to Western Australia’s Optus Stadium, Perth. No doubt the idea is to promote the game in the West and, maybe one day, have an NRL team based there again. The move succeeded in the sense that the game attracted a record crowd of 59,721 beating even the best AFL crowd at the ground to date.


We often talk about the fine line between winning and losing when it comes to Origin football, but not tonight. In one of their best displays over the past 15 years, NSW destroyed Queensland 38-6, dominating every facet of the game. They will now go on to be hot favourites to take out the series when the decider is played in Sydney on July 10.


When you play in wet and slippery conditions, key factors are field position, often via a strong kicking game, urgency and discipline. Tonight, one side excelled in all three while the other struggled from go to whoa. Right from the start, NSW, having to win to keep the series alive, showed far greater urgency in both attack and defence. Their forwards ran straight and hard at a Maroon defence line that appeared to hang back and wait. This conceded easy yardage and created space for James Maloney to pick and choose his plays both through the hands and off the boot. The veteran, recalled to provide direction and experience, was among the best on the field even if his defence was a bit suspect. He didn’t have to do much of that tonight.


In defence, the Blues were up out of their line quickly to nullify any worthwhile Queensland forward progress. Their team tackling was strong and relentless, allowing them to pin Queensland in their own half whenever the Maroons got the ball. By contrast, the northerners’ defence always seemed to be on the back foot, the very opposite of their performance in Game 1. From a Maroon perspective, it was pretty ugly.


The penalty count ended up fairly even but it was where and when they came that counted. Those conceded by NSW tended to be deep in Queensland’s half to allow momentary relief from the inexorable pressure. Queensland  gave away a rash of penalties in the third quarter of the match when the result was still reasonably open. These gifts allowed the Blues to come straight back onto the attack and also conceded points to take the margin out beyond 12 points, almost certain death territory in Origin football.


You could pick any of three or four Blues players as man-of-the-match – Maloney, Tom Trbojevic and Josh Addo-Carr were all right up there. But for me it was Boyd Cordner who played an inspirational game in both attack and defence after copping a huge hit early in the game. He set the example and his pack followed him to create the time and space for the backs to run riot. Debutant Dale Finucane looked at home in the forward exchanges and justified his call-up. Damien Cook ran less than usual but still kept the defence guessing and, when he did make a typical dart late in the piece, set up a try for Addo-Carr. Tedesco ran a lot of metres but many of them were easy gains returning poor kicks. He did, however, make the break that resulted in Turbo Tom’s second try just before halftime.


Queensland were best served by captain Daly Cherry-Evans who never stopped trying in attack and made about thirty tackles in defence, far more than a halfback should ever have to do. Matt Gillett led the tackle count with well over forty and put in his usual workman effort. Ben Hunt tried to get things moving and landed one 40/20 kick. Cameron Munster was given no time or space to weave anything creative while Kalyn Ponga was very heavily targeted by kick chasers. Michael Morgan will have nightmares after being beaten too often and too easily in defence but he wasn’t alone. There will be some real soul-searching in the Maroon camp before the Sydney game.


Referees Sutton and Klein has very good games again and, this time, the video ref also got it right, particularly the penalty try call to the Maroons in the first half.


So off we go to Sydney in a fortnight or so. As I mentioned earlier, NSW will be hot favourites to come from behind to take the series. But Origin is a funny game – who would have predicted tonight’s outcome? The last few times Queensland lost so badly, they came back to win the next game. We’ll just have to wait.


But then we have to remember that it’s only a game and that some perspective is needed. Sixty hours before kick-off, Queensland bench player Moses Mbye suffered an anaphylactic shock episode that had him moments from death in the team hotel. Only the presence and quick action of a team doctor prevented a tragedy. Fortunately, Mbye recovered fully to take his place in the team and, in his short time on the field, gave his all. Respect!


I got 3 out of 5 tips for the weekend. Unfortunately the two I missed were the important ones. Now, can I please have a break for a few days?


About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A loyal Queenslander, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. Enjoys travel, coffee and cake, reading, and has been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. One of Footy Almanac's online editors who enjoys the occasional editing opportunity to assist aspiring writers.

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