Ki­wis down Aussies for first time in 3 years

Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Burgess at Mt Smart

Ki­wis Kan­ga­roos

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.

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