New Zealand have sent a warning out to all rivals that they are a huge threat in this Rugby League World Cup, opening Pool B with an emphatic 38-8 demolition of Samoa at Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland. The emotional cultural challenges set the tone for a crunching clash and the early exchanges were brutal. The sides expand so much energy charging the atmosphere with electricity during these war cries and its lucky there’s a couple of extra interchanges than they’re used to in the NRL. The crowd of 18,000 loved it, the noise was deafening.
Samoa needed to begin strongly to put the favoured Kiwis off their game but it was not to be. As early as the 4th minute Shaun Johnson announced his intentions in this tournament. Running the ball on the blindside on the last play, Johnson and Canberra Raiders star Jordan Rapana combined beautifully to catch the Samoans out. Rapana cannot stop scoring tries and continued his season of excellence. It was 4-0 to the Kiwis and the Samoans were on the back foot.
Samoa have a very talented side and started to threaten offloading and running with purpose. Chances were created but unable to be converted. A Tim Lafai offload was intercepted on the line by Jordan Rapana in the 10th minute, and after the Kiwis knocked on trying to spread the ball from their own try line Josh Papalii was held up over the line.
English referee James Child enjoyed his moment in the international spotlight blowing the pea out of the whistle. There were five penalties in the first 15 minutes and Child’s didn’t let up. It was in stark contrast to the limited whistle blowing in the opener between Australia and England. Interpretation between hemispheres may come into play as the tournament develops.
In the 20th minute New Zealand were in again. After a great charge in the lead up by Joseph Tapine put the Samoan defence on its back heels, Simon Mannering wound back the clock and stepped through the ruck like a spritely teenager setting up the ever-present magic man Shaun Johnson. All of a sudden it was 10-0 after Johnson’s conversion and Samoa needed to score the next try or the game was in danger of being over before halftime.
Up stepped Joey Leilua. The Samoan’s main danger man swapped sides to appear in the left centres and it was his quick fire cut out pass that reached winger Ken Maumolo on the bounce, burning a few worms on the way. Maumolo cut inside to score and in the shadows of the break it was 10-4 and game on! There was still time before oranges for Peter Godinet to visit the HIA after a clash of heads with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from which Godinet was not to return. Godinet discovered there’s more to RTS than flash feet and blinding speed, he has one mighty hard melon.
A 10-4 halftime score in New Zealand’s favour would have pleased both coaches. The Kiwis had forced a few passes and made plenty of errors, while the Samoans bounced into the break after scoring late to get back into the game. Unfortunately for Samoa their bodies left the sheds for the second stanza but not their minds. They were blown away as the Kiwis came out intent on upping the ante.
Samoa were their own worst enemy. In the 46th minute Poor Ken Maumolo went from hero to zero spilling a Shaun Johnson grubber as he tried desperately to get back into the field of play. Brad Takairangi will not score an easier try as he just flopped on the loose ball in the in-goal. There was a hint of the ball being knocked out by Joseph Tapine’s hand but video referee Bernard Sutton deemed Maumolo had just lost the ball in contact.
It was a crucial but correct call as it gave New Zealand back their 10 point lead and some breathing space. The game was then decided in the ensuing ten minute period as the New Zealanders turned it on and Samoan heads dropped. It was all one way traffic and the Kiwi halves were at the wheel steering the side around expertly. Shaun Johnson continued his fantastic match by producing a brilliant inch-perfect grubber for a flying Kodi Nikorima to score and put the Kiwis in complete control at 20-4.
Three minutes later, Isaac Liu, who had a cracking game off the bench, scored after displaying neat footwork splitting the Samoans and it was 26-4 and game over. The Kiwis were relentlessly marching up field and the Samoans were unable to stop the momentum. The error rate was piling up as Samoa tired and disintegrated in the face of Kiwi carnage.
The only down side to this polished performance was a horrific leg injury to Kiwi centre, Gerard Beale who broke two bones in his leg in a freak accident. Beale was just running when his leg gave way and unfortunately it will be tournament ending. Beale left the ground sucking on the green pain whistle but was able to give the crowd a wave.
The prolonged beak for Beale’s injury didn’t affect the New Zealand momentum or stop the scoring as Kodi Nikorima continued his excellent match scooting through more poor Samoan defence to set up Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to extend the lead to 32-4. Nikorima had been a somewhat surprise selection at five-eighth ahead of the North Queensland Cowboys Te Maire Martin but the performance of Nikorima and importantly his slick combination with Shaun Johnson means Martin’s only World Cup action will be against Scotland barring any injury mishaps in the halves.
The game was entertaining and had a bit of everything. There were multiple pitch invasions from fans with security producing better defence than the Samoans in the second stanza. We also saw a scrum win against the feed and James Child even pulled out a scrum penalty from the archives! The time travelling continued as Samoa’s Bunty Afoa rocked a hairdo straight out of Starsky and Hutch.
Samoa turned into an unkempt rabble, prop forward Sam Lisone’s torn jersey hanging from his shoulder for the most of the second half mirrored the rabble Samoa had turned into. He looked like an extra from Mad Max Fury Road. The scoreboard pressure piled up and plenty of poor options were taken with ball in hand by Samoa while the kicking game was very ordinary. The halves need to improve this side of their play if they are to knock off Scotland, who will be more than likely Samoa’s main opponent for the crucial third spot in this pool.
New Zealand in contrast got better as the match wore on. The completion rate improved and the forwards monstered the slower Samoans, highlighted by the Kiwis final try as the gigantic frame of Nelson Asofa-Solomona used his wing span of a condor to reach out from a long way out to plant the ball down. The Melbourne Storm man was immense off the bench and the skill to get to the line like Inspector Gadget using his “Go go gadget” arms while holding the ball in one hand like he had plucked a grape off a vine was spellbinding. Johnson converted to push the score out to 38-4.
Samoa scored a consolation try after the final siren as Joseph Paulo won the race to ground a Joey Leilua grubber but it was a demoralising 38-8 thrashing. This was expected to be a good examination for New Zealand, who had lost plenty of players in the defections to Tonga, and it was for the first 40 minutes but the Kiwis brilliant second half showed they have a very strong and skilful squad at coach, David Kidwell’s disposal.
Joseph Tapine was adjudged Man of the Match but to be honest you could throw a blanket over Tapine, Shaun Johnson, Martin Taupau and Simon Mannering. It was a very pleasing performance that will have New Zealanders very confident for the much anticipated tussle with Tonga. Pregame Shaun Johnson had said he wanted the Kiwis to play attacking and entertaining rugby league that was fun to watch – mission accomplished.
New Zealand 38 defeated Samoa 8.