BLACK-AND-WHITE MAGIC! KIWIS DOWN ‘ROOS IN STIRRING DISPLAY

A dominant performance in the middle of the park, the mastery of Shaun Johnson and a couple of stunning debut outings carried the New Zealand Kiwis to their first win over the Australian Kangaroos in three-and-a-half years.

The Kiwis overcame some bewildering video ref calls, a halftime deficit and a late rally from the Kangaroos to prevail 26-24 at Mount Smart Stadium in an immensely important result for New Zealand Rugby League.

The home side scored 18 unanswered points after the break to charge to a 26-12 lead before surviving a late scare.

Johnson answered his critics emphatically, but the platform for the watershed result was laid by stalwart front-rowers Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Jesse Bromwich – backed up by one of the best collective engine-room displays by a Kiwis pack in recent memory.

Isaac Liu, Kevin Proctor and James Fisher-Harris were outstanding and the bench was huge. Ken Maumalo and Jordan Rapana starred on the flanks, and Kodi Nikorima had probably his best Test outing.

The biggest takeaway, though, is destined to be the stunning debuts of hooker Brandon Smith and centre Joseph Manu, as well as a superb showing from fullback and new captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, handed the role at just 23.

Mal Meninga’s charmed run as Australian coach finally has a loss against it, while New Zealand’s performance was dripping with new mentor Michael Maguire’s influence. Trans-Tasman footy is interesting again.

The Test started disastrously – and familiarly – for New Zealand as Australia created a giant overlap in just the third minute. Latrell Mitchell positioned Valentine Holmes for his 15th try in just 12 Tests.

But the Kiwis regrouped and dominated all but the last few seconds of the half (save for another few frightening passages down their right-side defence).

The hosts pounded the Aussies’ line, forcing several repeat sets and pressuring the world champs into errors and penalties. Shaun Johnson and Kodi Nikorima combined and probed impressively but the Kiwis struggled to turn their territory and possession advantage into points.

Ken Maumalo produced an outstanding diving finish but was denied a try by millimetres, clipping the touch in-goal line as he touched down. But the big Warriors winger had his maiden Test four-pointer in the 28th minute as a through-the-legs pass from Watene-Zelezniak and quick hands from Liu and Esan Marsters presented a far simpler put-down assignment.

New Zealand hit the front in the 35th minute through a determined solo run from Joesph Manu, who outpointed opposing centre, fellow debutant and clubmate Mitchell to force the ball.

Manu almost conjured a freakish try for Watene-Zelezniak with a deft chip kick in front of Australia’s posts, but the Bunker controversially, farcically knocked it back, citing a highly dubious alleged knock-on from Manu in the lead-up – despite the fact Ashley Klein sent it up as a try.

Agonisingly, the Kangaroos compounded their piece of undeserved fortune into a 12-8 halftime lead, with Dane Gagai finishing off a long-range movement shortly before the siren.

The bitter disappointment was two-fold: the Kiwis should have had a 14-6 advantage at the break, yet they found themselves behind after enjoying 65 percent possession.

After a couple of danger signs early in the second stanza – some poor Johnson kicks, unnecessary penalties and Kangaroos breaks – the Kiwis reclaimed the advantage in the 54th minute.

A fifth-tackle gamble from Waiheke Island product Brandon Smith garnered a dummy-half try on debut.

The subpar Mount Smart turnout made the noise of the sellout it should have been soon afterwards.

Johnson’s hot-stepping run on the last tackle upset the Aussies’ goal-line defence and Smith showed great composure to send the ball wide for Marsters to dive in. Johnson converted for a 20-12 lead with 17 minutes left.

Running the ball on the last again paid massive dividends in the 69th minute – and again Johnson’s elusiveness was integral.

But the headline was a simply brilliant offload from Manu for Jordan Rapana to dot down for a memorable try. Johnson’s sideline conversion put the Kiwis a crucial 14 points up.

Smith was denied a dream two-try introduction to international football by James Tedesco’s boot, planting the ball on the premiership-winning fullback’s leather – though it was another highly questionable call, with Ashley Klein sending it up a try and the ball looking to have nudged at least a few blades of grass. It almost proved heartbreakingly crucial.

Felise Kaufusi gave the Kangaroos a late sniff by crossing out wide with five minutes left. Australia then went coast to coast in the set from the restart, Tedesco scoring from a Mitchell offload to set up a nerve-shredding finish arguably neither side deserved.

But the Kiwis dug in and shut down the Kangaroos’ last two opportunities with the aggressive, ultra-committed defence that underpinned a famous victory.

Johnson doused the critics and fans who claimed he doesn’t stand up in big games by collecting the official man-of-the-match award (though JWH, Bromwich, Watene-Zelezniak, Manu and Smith were arguably more deserving), before surprise captaincy choice Watene-Zelezniak lifted the Bill Kelly Memorial Trophy in what has to rank as the finest moment of the Penrith tyro’s career.

Perhaps the most enduring image of the night, though, will be of Waiheke’s finest, Brandon Smith, and his tearful post-match embrace with family. This kid represents the future of the Kiwis. He’s got the goods from an ability perspective, but his passion and confidence were massively encouraging for this team moving forward.

Ditto Joseph Manu.

Relative newcomers Maumalo, Nikorima, Fisher-Harris, Liu and Marsters also stood tall. Equally, the forcefulness of veterans Waerea-Hargreaves, Bromwich, Proctor and Johnson had the hairs standing up on the back of the neck of Kiwis fans for the first time in way too long.

DWZ followed in the trailblazing footsteps of New Zealand’s first Maori Test captain, his great-grandfather Steve Watene, in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck-like fashion. An inspired skipper choice.

And this is a Kiwis side missing RTS, Issac Luke, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and a host of other potential first-choice players…not to mention the Tonga defectors that were wearing the black-and-white earlier last year.

It’s an enormous fill-up ahead of the Kiwis’ tour of England; the drought-breaking result was a statement that New Zealand – at an all-time low credibility-wise 11 months ago – are ready to reclaim outright second in the international rugby league pecking order and regularly challenge a rebuilding Australia again.

The Kangaroos, meanwhile, have just seven days to face up to a monumental challenge against Mate Ma’aTonga at the same venue with a heaving, red-soaked crowd to contend with as well as some of the world’s best players.

Gotta love Test footy.

New Zealand 26 (Ken Maumalo, Joseph Manu, Brandon Smith, Esan Marsters, Jordan Rapana tries; Shaun Johnson 3 goals) defeated Australia 24 (Valentine Holmes, Dane Gagai, Felise Kaufusi, James Tedesco tries; Holmes 4 goals) at Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland.

 

 

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