Kiwis at the dawn of golden era
Are the Kiwis no longer the poor cousins in the perennial trans-Tasman rugby league arm wrestle?
It’s not that the Kiwis haven’t had their successes in recent years – there was that 24- 0 bashing of the Kangaroos in the Tri Nations final at Leeds in 2005, and victories in the 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four Nations tournaments.
But the Aussies always come back stronger, as if to remind the Kiwis who’s really boss. Not this time, though. The Kiwis’ 22-18 win in the Four Nations final in Wellington on Saturday was the first time since 1953 they’d beaten Australia in successive tests.
The Kiwis mauled the Kangaroos 30-12 in Brisbane in October in a preliminary match, a five-try picnic.
It was pleasing, but given the Australians’ propensity for bouncing back stronger, didn’t augur well for the Kiwis in the final.
Australia then handled England and Samoa easier than did New Zealand on the way to the final.
The succession of Anzac Day test drubbings didn’t help ease the mind, either.
Also, there was the history of league in Wellington. The Kiwis had not beaten Australia in Wellington since winning a 12- 11 cliffhanger at the Basin Reserve in 1953 and the memory of that 58- 0 humiliation at Westpac Stadium in 2007 still burned.
But this time the Kiwis were simply too good.
I was surprised only 25,000 turned up to see the league match of the season. Perhaps the ground might have been full if Sonny Bill Williams had hung on in league instead of returning to the All Blacks for their northern hemisphere tour.
There was enough on show in Wellington to signal a new golden era for the Kiwis. Stacey Jones, Ruben Wiki and co were great, but so are Shaun Johnson, Manu Vatuvei, Simon Mannering and the rest of the current crop.
Vatuvei is physically imposing, but there’s more to his game than that.
He clung on to a difficult low pass from Johnson to score one try and charged across in a bullocking run for another.
They took his test tries tally to a New Zealand record 20, one past Nigel Vagana, with Jason Nightingale up to 17, after the one he scored in Wellington.
Richie McCaw is saluted for the leadership he brings to the All Blacks, but maybe not enough credit goes Mannering’s way for his ability to marshal his troops at times of crisis, and with the Warriors and the Kiwis, those times are seldom far away.
Mannering has now played 40 tests, fifth on the all-time New Zealand list.
Halfback Johnson was fantastic in the final, and few will forget his second-half effort, when he jetted through the Australian defence and left Greg Inglis standing flatfooted for a brilliant try.
What I especially liked about the New Zealand performance was the ‘‘team’’ element of it.
This wasn’t merely a transplanted Warriors side, who all know each other well.
The Kiwis squad was drawn from 12 NRL clubs and the players came together superbly.
Australian league fans are now rounding on their team, calling it the weakest ever, a disgrace and so on.
For once, it’s nice to see all the anguish coming from that side of the Tasman.
Dazzling run: Shaun Johnson makes his great break for a try during the Kiwis’ win over Australia on Saturday.