The Kangaroos have fired the first shot ahead of next week’s Pacific Championships decider by defeating the Kiwis 36-18 at AAMI Park in Melbourne.
Though tonight’s game was something of a dead rubber – both sides are already assured of qualification – one only had to see the pre-match performances to know that it was a live Test match.
Following the haka, the Kiwis stood stock still and continued their challenge for more than a minute before breaking off. They meant business.
Once the whistle blew, the intensity only ratcheted up further. Kiwis captain James Fisher-Harris and Tom Flegler both ended up covered in their own blood within the first half, which was as attritional as they come.
Eventually Australia’s defence came up trumps, keeping the Kiwis at bay long enough for their own attack to take advantage. Val Holmes and a unlikely double from Lindsay Collins were enough to stretch the scoreline to 18-6 and, though Ronaldo Mulitalo hit back before the break, it was a lead that would prove enough.
Dylan Edwards and Ben Hunt added further points after the break, sandwiched either side of a trademark Fa’amanu Brown dummy half dart, and it was plenty enough to see Australia home.
Cam Murray scored late on to add a gloss to the scoreline that was perhaps unfair on the Kiwis, equalling a Kangaroos record in the process: he has now scored in six successive Tests, the joint most for a forward, level with the great Ron Coote.
Mal Meninga was able to rotate some of his big guns in the middle and give time to Nicho Hynes and Flegler, with Payne Haas, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Selwyn Cobbo in line to return next week.
“I thought it was an excellent performance,” he said. “The things that we wanted to get through, we did. Our second half was amazing, our completion rate was great and we controlled field position.
“We’ve got some quality players in our footy team that can take advantage of that.”
Michael Maguire in the Kiwis hotseat will have much to ponder. His side weren’t as far off it as 36-18 sounds, but this wasn’t the best possible Australian side either. Next week he will have home advantage – and on the evidence of tonight, will need it.
“I thought it was a pretty even game at half time,” said the coach.
“There were time when they had pressure and when we had pressure. But the second half, I felt we weren’t where we needed to be.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence and belief in these players. They’ve been good in the last three weeks since coming together and they’ll go away
“The boys are hurting. They wanted to get tonight. But we’ll take the learnings and get them at Hamilton.”
The headline going into any of these clashes is the battle in the middle, but the truth here was that, in all likelihood, they would fight each other to a standstill. It was to be the backs who made the difference – and there was no doubt that Australia’s were better.
The left edge, in particular, was the most reliable source of threat. Cam Munster has been poor since the Origin break and almost missed this game due to illness, but was back to his best.
He particularly relished facing up against his halves partner at club level, and decisively won the battle over Jahrome Hughes both with and without the ball.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was close to the best on ground in the centre, serving two pieces of magic that resulted in points for his side. At this level, that can be the difference.
It was notable that New Zealand failed to create similar moments. Their tries were from kicks and a close range pushover but beyond that, the Kiwis didn’t really threaten with ball in hand.
In the short time that rep camps get together, it’s hard to build much by way of pet plays or patterns, but teams can certainly work out strengths and play to them.
Mal seems to heavily favour the left now, with Munster, Murray and the Hammer all possessing good hands and a run threat, so it wasn’t surprising to see the Kangaroos go back that way plenty of times.
This is only the dress rehearsal, but that edge will likely not change for next time up. It’s over to New Zealand to work out a better way to respond.
The issue against the Kangaroos, as a rule, is that you have to be perfect and, even then, they often get you anyway.
It was a bit like that for the Kiwis, who made very few errors but were punished by two moments of brilliance – one from Tedesco, the other from Tabuai-Fidow – to find themselves behind, then lost their heads a mite and found the score had blown out to 18-6.
Australia’s team is so good that the defence doesn’t really have a weak point, meaning it takes a kick or something exceptional to break them down.
For the Kiwis, the greatest chance of the latter is Manu, but they struggled to get him enough ball in good enough positions to have a major impact. Indeed, the one time they did, late in the first half, he created a break for Isaako and they scored on the next play.
The good news is that Madge gets another week to think of a solution to this problem. His best player needs to get his hands on the footy more often, and that means he either shifts to fullback or takes on a more roving commission.
In the World Cup, Manu was getting 34 touches per game and averaging 28 runs. Those are huge numbers, and really not replicable in the centres. He got 15 tonight.
The issue is that, if he plays fullback, then Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has to go somewhere else.
CNK hasn’t been bad at all and, on another day, might have had a try assist for his part in a move that got Jamayne Isaako a shot at the corner. It was straight out of the Warriors’ playbook, but the Dolphins winger doesn’t quite have the pace of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
It might be as simple as swapping the pair around. CNK isn’t a natural centre, but filled in at the World Cup and can do all the basics well. If that gets the best out of Manu, then it needs to happen, because he’s how they win.