Madge-ic: Maguire’s masterclass helps Kiwis inflict record defeat on battered Kangaroos
If Australia losing is good for international rugby league, then today was a great day.
The Kiwis didn’t just beat the Kangaroos, they thrashed them, outplaying and outenthusing the world champions en route to a 30-0 victory in Waikato.
It was the final that the Pacific Championships needed: New Zealand providing a proof of concept for the tournament, already justifying the next one with a performance that shows what is possible when Test footy gets centre stage.
This is the Kangaroos’ record defeat, topping the Kiwis’ 24-0 in the 2005 Tri-Nations Final, and Michael Maguire’s men were worth every inch of it.
He has played the same 17 three weeks running, while Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga chopped and changed, giving everyone a game.
One side looked like a well-oiled machine and by the end, one looked ragged. Australia ran obstruction plays, threw forward passes and lost their men in defence, while New Zealand looked increasingly coherent.
Maguire can take so much credit for this. His side were fired up from the start, approaching the game with maximum aggression, but also came armed with a plan, pushing when it was there to be pushed and sticking it up the jumper at other times.
It was telling that the Kiwis’ best included both wingers – if Ronaldo Mulitalo ever plays better than today, he’ll have done well – with the plan clearly to challenge the Kangaroos on the edges early and often. From the first good ball set, New Zealand went wide and tried their arm.
In the pack, there was no fear.
That was both in terms of their contact, which was ferocious – James Fisher-Harris’ first carry hit Ben Hunt so hard that he knocked Reuben Cotter, the man behind him, clean off his feet – but also in their skill, with offloads flowing from the start.
There were very few wasted plays, and the Kangaroos were unable to match the enthusiasm in the middle or keep up with the attack out wide.
Jamayne Isaako capped a superb season with two tries and Matt Timoko opened his account in international footy by burning Daly Cherry-Evans for the clincher. Griffin Neame’s barge right over the top of Nicho Hynes, told to play at lock with Australia chasing the game, told its own story.
The Kiwis win it with attack
In last week’s post-match press conference, Maguire emphasised how his side had given too many freebies to the Kangaroos. They certainly approached the start with that mentality, barely throwing a pass early on and attempting to drag Australia into the dirt with them.
That is bread and butter for Mal’s men, but crucially, the point of the grind is to tire your opponent out and then make hay. Australia did the first bit, but New Zealand did the second.
The Kiwis came to play, with a gritty mentality allied to a willingness to chance their arm when the moment occurred.
There was an appreciation that they didn’t throw anywhere near enough attack last week, but this time around, they were far more adventurous in the correct time and place.
At times it was a little too much – nobody asked to see James Fisher-Harris kicking – and a little panicky in the beginning, but as the half wore on, they very much grew into the task.
Dylan Brown and Jahrome Hughes both established their run, Joey Manu got plenty of hands on the football and the offloads flowed out of the forwards.
By the time they opened the scoring through Mulitalo, it wasn’t a surprise. Indeed, the manner of it was an indication: they attacked the corner early in the set, with no wasted plays, because the opportunity was there following an offload.
Suddenly the confidence flowed and the ball went wide increasingly quickly. Manu on the right and Matt Timoko on the left were motoring up the field, with Nicoll-Klokstad buzzing behind.
The fullback was the catalyst for the second, joining the line and icing the pass as he has all year, with Jamayne Isaako standing in for Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. Again, it was early in the count. The Kiwis hadn’t come to die wondering.
Australia, on the other hand, were ponderous. They were playing overly conservatively, rarely threatening with width or movement, and far too slowly, with the Kiwis able to line them up in defence.
Not until the introduction of Harry Grant and Lindsay Collins did the tempo pick up, and by then, it was too late in the half to make an impact.
When they did find field position, the late set plays were chaotic and neither Cam Munster nor Daly Cherry-Evans were able to exert any control. Indeed, when the Kangaroos did make their sole first half line break, Val Holmes was put into the middle of next week by Mulitalo.
The half time scoreline was bad, but the stats were even worse: five line breaks to one, nine offloads to two and 300 more metres to the Kiwis. 12-0 probably flattered Australia.
The Roos did start after the break with a lot more endeavour, twice moving the ball early, but it was unconvincing. Again, the Kiwis went straight from the scrum and made them pay, Isaako finishing at the corner.
The Kangaroos pack gets battered
It’s common to read a lot into the first carry. Today’s, from Fisher-Harris, was a classic of the genre, setting the tone right from the start.
The Fish was fired up, but he wasn’t the only one. Joseph Tapine, Moses Leota and even Kieran Foran, playing at 9, were getting stuck in.
Those who have seen the Titans veteran play in the halves for years would have been surprised to see him throwing himself into tackles low around the feet of Payne Haas, but there he was.
The brawn is one thing, but the brains were perhaps even more impressive. The Kiwis came to challenge the opposing middle but also to make them work, with constant second phase.
Moreover, they kept it up. Leo Thompson has blossomed into a superb player late in 2023 and continued that here, keeping the aggression high when he entered midway through the first half. Needless to say, so did Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
Nobody has treated Haas and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui like this in a long time. They were manhandled in defence, running one out far too often, and dominated in attack, with high body contact invariably followed by an offload.
This wasn’t a defeat, it was a battering. Though the wide men won it, don’t forget those in the middle so laid the platform.