Well, I’ll admit I didn’t see that one coming.
In a World Cup final where the majority of the 50,599 in attendance were expecting to see the coronation of what had been described in the build-up as one of the greatest Australia sides ever, instead we witnessed New Zealand pull off one of the most spectacular pieces of sporting regicide ever seen as they upset the odds to score an ultimately convincing 34-20 victory. The Kiwis outfought the Kangaroos, and their defensive pressure caused a surprisingly brittle Australia side into mistakes in key positions. Perhaps most surprisingly of all though, New Zealand were by far and away the more disciplined side, as the wrestling interfering methods pioneered in the NRL were pushed beyond their limits in an attempt to stop the momentum of the New Zealand side. Australia tried to find a way to overcome the Kiwi menace but in doing so often just left opportunities which New Zealand gleefully exploited
In retrospect, more attention should have been paid to the Kiwis’ recent record in finals. Of course it’s well known that they beat the Kangaroos in the 2005 Tri-Nations final, but it’s also overlooked that they only lost in golden point extra time in the final a year later, having scored more tries in regulation time (alas, conceding more penalties as well). Sure, they’ve underperformed in one-off tests and test series over the last three years, but I think that yesterday’s performance shows how little that really matters. In the most important game of their lives, the Kiwis stepped up to levels hitherto not seen from them and vanquished their heavily favoured foes with a display of guts, determination, intelligence and skill that opened up weaknesses in the Kangaroos not seen in quite some time.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about this game without mentioning a key turning point in the game; namely, the penalty try that took New Zealand two scores clear with ten minutes remaining. I think it’s a small shame that this clouds the result somewhat and some Kangaroos have already been complaining, but I think they’re missing the point, which is that Australia were comprehensively outplayed down the stretch, which is something we have rarely ever seen in the last few decades and certainly not in big games (even in the Tri-Nations defeat they were just horrible for the whole game). Personally, I didn’t think that it was a penalty try, but it was a definite penalty and probably should have seen Joel Monaghan dismissed for the remaining minutes of the match (if not a sending off it should have been a sin-binning, which would effectively be the same thing with less than ten minutes to play). Who’s to say that even if it was just given as a penalty that New Zealand wouldn’t have scored a more conventional try? Sure, the Kiwis had the majority of the luck, but considering that Australia had everything go their way up until this point, maybe it’s just things balancing out.
For all the talking about the refereeing, it can’t really detract from the fact that the Kiwis were definitely the better side. They were dominant in the forwards and my personal Man of the Match was Jeremy Smith, who was demonic in defence, a juggernaut in attack, and his ankle tap on Johnathan Thurston is one of the key moments being overlooked in the wake of the penalty try. On top of that, the Kiwis finally appear to have brains again, as Nathan Fien and Benji Marshall, err, marshalled (sorry) the Kiwi forwards around the field and their kicking game helped to keep Billy Slater from causing too much damage on kick returns (although he did threaten on occasions). Thomas Leuluai and Isaac Luke between them also helped to control the ruck which was a large factor in their success. Perhaps most importantly though, the Kiwi forwards won the collision more often than not, and their ability to drive and get quick play-the-balls negated the Australian’s technical wrestling style. Nathan Cayless, Adam Blair and the aforementioned Smith were all outstanding in taking the fight to the Kangaroos.
As for Australia, whilst there’s no denying that they underperformed you can hardly say that they handed victory on a plate to New Zealand. Their forwards tried hard, particularly Petro Civoniceva, and their backs looked threatening on the few occasions that they were allowed to get the ball wide by the Kiwis (as was shown by their third try, which was one of the greatest set of tackles I have ever seen). Darren Lockyer received the official Man of the Match award which struck me as odd, but he was valiant in defeat, scoring a first-half brace and trying to put pressure on the Kiwis in the second half with his passing and well measured kicking game. What was really noticeable about the ‘roos performance though was how unnoticeable the threequarters were. A back-line that has dominated the tournament to this point was shut down. Apart from his try Greg Inglis was barely seen (along with Israel Folau) and Joel Monaghan’s main contribution was conceding the penalty try. David Williams took his try nicely, but in the end the Kiwis were able to starve the Australian three-quarters of attacking ball, and thus render them impotent.
In the end, the Australian performance was summed up fairly well by the showing of Billy Slater. Named as the RLIF World Player of the Year earlier in the week, he started off like a bullet, and it was his searing break that set up Darren Lockyer and his cut-out pass that freed David Williams. Yet as the game wore on New Zealand started to get the measure of him and didn’t let him get his way. Both Jeremy Smith and Lance Hohaia gave him the speedbump treatment in scoring their tries, and of course he had one of the most high-profile brain explosions in Rugby League history when his inside speculator pass gifted Benji Marshall with his try. Slater, like the Kangaroos, looked threatening at many points during the match, but undermined it with mistakes at key moments. His final pass into touch, looking to free Monaghan for a try, seemed indicative of a player trying too hard.
So overall, the best team in the tournament lost, but the best side in the final won. It shows that Australia aren’t the superhuman behemoths that they are sometimes portrayed as, and that good coaching and preparation can be a massive factor in improvement. Most of all though, it’s the best possible result for the tournament and for international Rugby League; just because Australia are the best side in the world, it doesn’t mean that no side can aspire to become better than them. International Rugby League should no longer be seen as a one horse race, and dare I say it the Kangaroos will come back stronger from this defeat. What we need for international Rugby League to be seen as interesting is competition, and in a tournament littered with close, intense games and underdogs exceeding expectations, we got the most fitting and beneficial finale possible. Roll on 2013!