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Kiwis can improve before Four Nations – but so too can favourites Australia

The Guardian The Guardian 5 days ago Matt Cleary

New Zealand players line up for the New Zealand national anthem during the International Rugby League Test © Paul Kane/Getty Images New Zealand players line up for the New Zealand national anthem during the International Rugby League Test Some years ago when Australia played France in a Test match in the regional NSW town of Parkes – known for a giant space dish, a movie about it called The Dish, and as home of the Parkes Spacemen rugby league club – it was the great and wise Ray Warren who said, “There’s something about Test match rugby league”. And he was bang on.

For though that Test match is pretty much remembered only for a rooster that was set free on the field, there was, as Warren said, something indefinable about Australia playing Test match footy.

Regardless of the opposition, to wear the famous wattle gold V-stripes on a background of eucalyptus green, makes you the best of your kind and from a storied line of champions.

And thus, as the Australia and New Zealand teams stood for anthems in the sunny pre-dusk of Perth on Saturday evening, cynicism about why Channel Nine and rugby league would want a Test match between the NRL grand final and the Four Nations tournament abated. And from a couch 3,948 kilometres from nib Stadium it was clear the Test meant plenty to players.

For to play against our cousins from across the pond, you can’t not be up for it. Facing that haka – brilliantly choreographed and executed, all the throaty masculine “challenge” to it, the ripping open of chests, the crazy eyes, all that – you can’t do anything but think, ‘Well - these people really mean it’.

Other nods to culture: the “Welcome to Country” was was well received. The anthems – we got into ‘em, got ‘em over with. And a capacity crowd of 20,283 at nib Stadium – home of Perth Glory, Western Force and one day who knows West Coast Pirates – got ready to rumble.

There are 1.85 million people in Perth and many, many Kiwis. If they couldn’t find 20,000 to fill the joint for a Test match, Perth could forget rugby league forever.

The early footy, as always between these foes was physical, willing, meaty, thick – all the good stuff. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves dropped the ball (a common Kiwi theme) and went at Johnathan Thurston’s head with an old-fashioned coat-hanger. Yet Thurston was running low and the big prop’s action was reaction. It looked bad – but Matt Cecchin’s penalty sufficed.

Cooper Cronk was a factor early, the fast little speed boat, nipping into the meat of the Kiwis D-line with his pointed incisions.

The Kiwis coughed up the ball, and had no plan for when their allotted number of tackles ran out.

Perhaps it was new coach David Kidwell’s plan to let them play “off the cuff”. If so, it was a bad idea. What came from the cuff was poor.

Shannon Boyd of Australia gets tackled during the International Rugby League Test match between the Kangaroos and Kiwis © Paul Kane/Getty Images Shannon Boyd of Australia gets tackled during the International Rugby League Test match between the Kangaroos and Kiwis That’s not an accusation you could have levelled at Greg Inglis. “GI” can look busted and even disinterested in club rugby league, such are the expectations put on the champions.

But even after joining the camp on Thursday after the birth of his second child, the big man ran free, scored a double and fed Holmes with precision, purpose-built pill.

Keep Inglis fit and Australia has super-strike on the left.

Meanwhile the Kiwis continued to stuff things up. Isaac Luke – passionate, full-on, the leader of the tight-knit haka pack – gave away his customary penalty for attacking the knees of a player held up by another two. It’s not a good piece of Luke’s game and one day he’ll snap a man’s ligaments and feel really bad.

And so it was all Australia in the first 20 minutes. And yet because of the strong sou-wester – the famous wind called “the Fremantle Doctor” because it provides succour from the heat – Thurston’s conversions were blown to hell. And Australia, with all the ball and territory, led just 8-nil.

And the worm turned. All action Adam Blair, rock hard Manu Ma’u and Martin Taupau came on as the Kiwis found their mojo.

Jason Taumalolo ran hard, which is very hard indeed. Kevin Proctor ran a hard line on an angle and hit a hole off a short forward pass by Shaun Johnson.

It was one of maybe three marginal passes missed by Cecchin and his touch judges, who did pick up another couple. But overall one referee was better than two.

And it proved again that rugby league’s quest for “perfect” adjudication does not make it a better game.

And so onwards the Test match rolled, both teams repelling and attacking and throwing themselves about.

New Zealand players perform the haka during the International Rugby League Test © Paul Kane/Getty Images New Zealand players perform the haka during the International Rugby League Test The Kiwis got plenty from their “Hair Bears” – Blair, Proctor and Tohu Harris. Australia’s Boyd Cordner bled from the head like you he’d been in a UFC fight while Holmes ran hard and straight – a super player who enjoyed a super debut.

Cecchin punished poor ball control, and was roundly applauded. There was the odd “hint of a knock-on” and Josh Dugan had hands on a ball that wasn’t called six-again.

But commentator Phil Gould said it best after watching a couple of replays when he said in summary: “Anyway.”

Tyson Frizzel rumbled hard for Australia, making you wonder if he should’ve been in a blue jumper a couple years ago, whether the great Paul Gallen could have retired an Origin champion in 2014 when he was 33.

How good could Frizell be now? Just a thought.

Into the second half and the Kiwis’ fifth-tackle plays continued along the lines of ad-libbing clowns and bad street mimes. It’s something that’s pretty heavily practiced in as structured a game as rugby league can be, the fifth tackle play.

To beat Australia – to beat anyone in an NRL all the Kiwis play in – you must “complete” your sets of six tackles.

It’s a fundamental building block. As is hanging onto the ball.

And the Kiwis did neither of those things to reserve grade Metropolitan Cup-level standard – much less a Test match against Australia – and were summarily towelled-up by 20 points.

And yet, looking forward, these things can be fixed. That’s a take-away for New Zealand. As poorly as they played, it was “only” 20 points.

Drop that much ball and stuff up so much end-of-set action you could expect to have 50 put on you. Yet New Zealand defended hard and with passion. It was a Test match, not a tea party. New Zealand can improve.

But Australia can also and they will go into the Four Nations tournament in England as short-priced favourites.

They will welcome back Aaron Woods and Josh Mansour, who’ll likely take starting positions from Shannon Boyd and Blake Ferguson.

At right centre Dugan did little good and was out-pointed by Solomone Kata.

Dugan looks like a fullback out of position, and there may be a reason for that. Justin O’Neill plays right centre for Queensland and North Queensland and had a storming Origin series. We’ll see what Mal Meninga does there.

But Australia are short-priced Four Nations favourites. Their champions – Thurston, Cronk and Cameron Smith in the decision-making positions, Inglis and Boyd out wide – on the back of enough ball just know how to get things done. They know how to win.

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