Kiwis down Aussies for first time in 3 years
Test football is back. The Kiwis are back. And all those fans who stayed away will be feeling pretty silly. What a performance, against all expectations.
The 26-24 scoreline doesn’t really do justice to the Kiwis’ dominance in what feels like a pivotal day for New Zealand league.
It was the first victory over the Kangaroos since 2015, and at times had echoes of that famous performance in Brisbane.
It was also the first time the Kiwis had won a transtasman test in Auckland since 2003, and the ferocious atmosphere reminded why home tests are so important. At times, it felt like those famous Albany tests in the late 1990s all over again.
Who saw this coming? Wow. New captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was simply outstanding, playing like a man possessed from his first touch. Jesse Bromwich was superb in his redemption test, prop Jared WaereaHargreaves continued his form from the grand final and the halves did their jobs expertly.
And what about the young guns? Brandon Smith grabbed a try on debut — and could have had another — while Joseph Manu was another stand out.
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga made no excuses, just choosing to laud a superb Kiwis performance, while Michael Maguire was thrilled, but emphasised it was only the start of the journey.
But what a way to begin. After a shaky start, the Kiwis grabbed the initiative and never really let it go, as the young Kangaroos side struggled to gain any momentum. But you can never count out the Australians, and their courageous comeback at the death almost broke 10,000 hearts.
But the Kiwis did it and now have a platform for the Maguire era.
After a rousing haka, the home side were caught napping in the first minute. The Kangaroos engineered a gaping overlap and Latrell Mitchell sent Valentine Holmes away to score.
It didn’t look good, and it looked even worse in the next few phases of play, when Mitchell twice got clear, and the Kiwis avoided further damage on the scoreboard thanks only to a knock-on by a support runner, then later a forward pass.
The omens weren’t great but then the Kiwis found their verve. A Shaun Johnson chip forced a repeat set, then a Watene-Zelezniak charge got his team-mates — and the crowd — going.
What followed next was a sustained period of dominance, as the Kiwis camped in the Australian half.
The Kiwis were almost faultless in terms of completions; they forced dropouts (three in the first half alone), won penalties and built pressure. On the rare occasions the Australians got possession, they inevitably made mistakes. The Kangaroos were missing their legion of retired on-field generals and lacked the composure those players brought.
But their defence was remarkable, defending five consecutive sets at one stage. The Kiwis finally opened their account through Ken Maumalo in the 26th minute, after the Warriors winger had gone close five minutes earlier. A Martin Taupau offload created the overlap, as well as some tunnel ball from Watene-Zelezniak.
By now, the crowd were in full voice, with their “Kiwis, Kiwis” chant, and the volume increased further when Manu fended off clubmate Latrell Mitchell to wrestle his way over in the 34th minute.
The half turned with a controversial video referee decision, which found a Manu knock-on to deny a spectacular Watene-Zelezniak try.
A minute later, the Kangaroos exploited defensive hesitation down the blindside, and the long-range try by Dane Gagai felt like a dagger to the heart.
The second half was more cut and thrust, and James Tedesco was denied only by a magnificent WateneZelezniak tackle, before Smith’s determined effort gave the Kiwis the lead.
There was more to come, as Johnson footwork created space for Esan Masters to dive over in the 61st minute. That lit the fire for the Kiwis, with some Manu magic setting up a somersaulting Jordan Rapana six minutes later.
That should have sealed the result, but late tries to Felise Kaufusi and James Tedesco set up a nerve racking finish. But the Kiwis would not be denied a well-deserved win.
Kiwis 26 (K. Maumalo, J. Manu, B. Smith, E. Marsters, J. Rapana tries; S Johnson 3 goals) Kangaroos 24 (V. Holmes, D. Gagai, F. Kaufusi, J. Tedesco tries; V. Holmes 4 goals). Halftime: Australia 12-8.