What a fantastic festival of footy we had, the Representative round was a great showcase of the passion and pride of rugby league in both hemispheres. The Pacific Test triple header was once again a highlight producing great theatre on and off the field. The flag seller at Campbelltown made a killing and could probably buy their own island judging by the number waving proudly in the stands. The trilogy of Tests saw PNG cream the Cook Islands, Tonga edge Fiji in a thriller and England slam Samoa. Sunday we farewelled the City Country clash with City taking the honours. Friday night saw the Kangaroos demolish the Kiwis, leaving the burning question, who can stop the Kangaroos being crowned at the end of season World Cup?
The Water Cooler – Ten Talking Points
The Kangaroos came out fighting and boxed the Kiwis into submission, the New Zealanders were battered and bruised, punch drunk by the break. Australia played at such a fast pace, too hot to handle, the stunned Kiwis not only couldn’t get off the ground, they couldn’t find the try line. The Kangaroos were at their blistering best, defending their line with vigilance then attacking with ferocity basically blowing the Kiwis off the park. The major difference between the sides is the Aussies professionalism. They are clinical, take every chance offered and quickly turn Kiwi mistakes into points up the other end. Before you could blink it was 24-0 at the break was game over.
Gillett Killed It
Matt Gillett had a stormer and had man of the match covered by half time. His finest performance in a green and gold jersey, Gillett was everywhere, making breaks and saving tries with his trademark steel defence. Strong as an ox, Gillett is the best try saver in the game, stopping players dead in their tracks. He defends the try line as if his life depends on it and dependability is one of Gillett’s best qualities. He never has a bad game and his consistency of performance places him in the top echelon of rugby league players.
Golden Boot Losing Shine
Another disappointing Anzac Test for the Kiwis was highlighted by yet another indifferent performance from their star halfback Shaun Johnson. Magic at his best, tragic at his worst, he needs to find his Golden Boot winning form of 2014 if the Kiwis are to raise the World Cup. He showed insights into his undoubted brilliance but it was too often followed by moments of mystery when it seems even he doesn’t know what’s coming. Poor last tackle options are hurting the side and it is this part of his game Johnson needs to manage. His intercept pass early in the game turned the match and was symptomatic of Johnson, he created the moment but the delivery lacked precision.
Everyone expected Samoa to ride on the emotion of their Siva Tau war dance and blast the English early. Someone forgot to hand England the script as it was the English led by their excellent pack that blew out of the blocks and rocked the Samoans. Wayne Bennett is about as popular as the plague in England, lose this match and they may have stood Bennett down from his duties like the Duke of Edinburgh, 96 in June (the Duke not Wayne) I would have stood myself down a long time ago! Knocking Bennett doesn’t bother him, he’s teflon coated and his simple but effective plans worked perfectly in the first half and England were always controlling their sets and the game, cleverly taking the emotion out of the Samoans and the crowd. The massive English pack rolled up field and the kicking game at the end of each set was top drawer. There was a lot to like about this performance and England can return for the World Cup optimistic.
England had too much class for Samoa and the best in a good team performance were the dynamic duo from the Canberra Raiders, Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead. As expected Hodgson ran the show, controlling the tempo from dummy half, the timing of his raids and passing exemplary. Hodgson is world class and England are always a chance with him at 9. Whitehead had yet another big game, he is a rock in this English team and it must give his teammates and Bennett comfort knowing the job he is assigned will be done to the highest degree as he always plays the full 80 minutes giving a wholehearted display par excellence and this was yet another.
Kevin Brown and Luke Gale have given Wayne Bennett a headache of the nicest kind, well I assume Wayne had a headache, it’s hard to tell from a man who holds the same expression all the time. He’d be a shoe in to win the World Staring Competition, his clash against Steven Seagal an emotionless Battle Royale. Without first choice halves Gareth Widdop and George Williams, Brown and Gale combined beautifully with Josh Hodgson highlighted by the try Hodgson scored involving all three. They were fluent which holds England in good stead for the World Cup considering they only had a week to prepare. The kicking game of both Brown and Gale was clever and add Brown’s dangerous running game and it’s a combination leaving Bennett plenty to ponder.
Tonga and Fiji produced the match of the round in an enthralling battle of the two Island nations. The passion in the crowd was matched on the paddock as both sides ripped into each other. Tonga got the jump on Fiji with the T-Rex Tony Williams leading the way bowling Fijians over like ten pins. Fiji settled and struck back swiftly, two tries tearing through the Tongan ruck had Fiji flying and in front. Fans singing and flags flying, this was Pacific footy at its finest. The scoreboard continued to swing back and forth until the Tongans scored the late match winner after a great face ball from their inspiring hooker Siliva Havili scored by the impressive Leilani Latu one of Tonga’s best. The Panthers will be hoping Latu brings home the infectious spirit of the Tongans to spread amongst his teammates.
Will Hopoate’s rich vein of form since his return a couple of weeks ago continued with a sterling match at fullback for Tonga. He was safe as always at the back and ran with purpose and skill, stepping out of danger multiple times. He darted out of the in goal expertly, displaying his marvellous evasiveness. His defence was solid, he ticked every box. Keep this up and another NSW Origin jersey is within reach, he must be at least considered, Laurie Daley has lined up about five fullbacks in his three-quarters, why not add another one?
Papua New Guinea’s thrilling win over the Cook Islands would have had the league mad nation going loopy! After a tight first stanza, the Kumuls powered away and fully deserved their victory. The combination and fitness garnered playing as a unit for the PNG Hunters in the Intrust Super Cup told in the end as they finished over the top of the gallant but ultimately outclassed Cook islanders. Ase Boas was superb especially his kicking game, while Wellington Albert was immense off the bench barrelling players out of his way. The standout was fullback Stargroth Amean who scored two beauties slicing through. His hard running was as impressive as his name, a star indeed.
Farewell Old Friend
As a boy from the bush the City Country fixture was always a highlight on the calendar. It is sad to see it go but times change and it has struggle to gain a foothold of relevance for years. It was pleasing to see the players allowed and wanting to play in the fixture give it a marvellous send off. It was a good quality game with both sides giving it everything. No longer an Origin trial? Don’t tell that to James Tamou, Paul Vaughan or Tariq Sims who headed both engine rooms and stoked the boiler with fervour. The Panthers involved for City all played well, escaping the claustrophobic nature of the NRL and enjoying a week of fresh country air would have done them well. Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright in particular didn’t do their origin chances any harm.
As rugby league loves to do, it shot itself in the foot yet again with headlines alleging drug possession and drug taking moving the footy back to the front page where it seems to feature far too often. Unfortunately, the Anzac Test was so much fun some of the players didn’t want the party to end, with CCTV allegedly showing players inhaling a white substance off a mobile phone. Maybe Siri was just asking for someone to help with her make-up and powder her nose?
The next call the players take will be from the NRL Integrity Unit.