Pitch perfect Kangaroos play World Cup symphony

Australia's Man of the Match, Johnathan Thurston

Australia’s Man of the Match, Johnathan Thurston


Goals: Johnson


Tries: Slater 2, Cronk, B Morris 2

Goals: Thurston 7

This was 24-carat gold, green and gold. When William Web Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it in 1880, rugby was born. Regardless of the code it is a sport in which pace, power and precision are rewarded. As has been the case in recent times, running rugby seldom outlasts a team intent on working in increments of threes and twos for the full eighty minutes. Rugby League rewards running rugby. The reward on offer on Saturday for two traditional rivals was the Rugby League World Cup of 2013.

In truth, it was never even in the shop window for the Kiwis. It had already been signed, sealed and delivered to their foes across the Tasman Sea. Australia were magnificent in the truest sense of the word, working harder when they didn’t have the ball to when they had it. In attack they were not perfect, committing knock-ons and fumbles, but only in the pursuit of the perfect pass. Everything was precise on the defensive side of the ball, as it has been all tournament. The 10-time World Cup Winners were breached but twice in seven weeks; and that was in the opening game versus hosts England.

Australia took the lead early in the first half with a penalty from Man of the Match Johnathan Thurston, only to be pegged back by his New Zealand counterpart and England’s nemesis Shaun Johnson before the quarter of an hour mark. This was the only point in the contest when the then World Cup Holders could have called themselves equals to the Australians. From here on in, it was an exercise in ruthlessness.

The opening try was scored by the irrepressible Billy Slater, after catching a kick from Thurston he pirouetted to dot down. Thurston added the extras, the second of seven kicks from seven. Kicking, Catching, Tackling, Running, Passing-The Fab Four of Rugby were on full display. 8-2. Cooper Cronk, after being held-up the first time he crossed the whitewash, was on the spot again to collect a kick through from Darius Boyd as the New Zealand defence dallied. With those two tries, Australia built a healthy 16-2 lead at the break, already forcing their opponents to score two tries to even make the second half anything close to competitive.

Alas, the defining moment of the match was a tackle. Deep in Australian territory with time ticking towards 40 minutes, New Zealand tried to spread the ball wide to capitalise on narrow Australian defence. The men in black failed to realise that even in defence the Aussies come at you in waves, working in packs on five. As they panned across the field New Zealand thought they were in. Think again. The five, including the gargantuan prop-forward Sam Thaiday- who made more than 22 tackles-and the faultless Slater at full-back, slammed the door shut. The door would never even be ajar again. The Australians were making it crystal clear: in this Antipodean clash between the world’s best, they were leaving with the trophy.

The vast majority of the world record-setting 74,468 crowd were supporting New Zealand in the absence of the hosts. In their ignorance of sporting excellence, they had the gaul and temerity to boo the Australians. As the players re-emerged for the second act of this sporting masterpiece, there was a seed of doubt if Sonny Bill Williams‘ men had just been lulling Old Trafford into a false sense of security, setting up the greatest comeback in international Rugby League history. The World Player of the Year flattered to deceive.

Within a minute of the restart, it was 22-2. Game, Set, Match. Call the engravers. On the fourth tackle of a set of six, Captain Cameron Smith darted forward down the short side, hampered for room, waiting for the opportune moment before setting Thurston away, Thurston in turn opening the traps for greyhound Boyd, carrying the ball in two hands like a waiter with a tray, serving up Slater’s second try at the double.

Astoundingly, more was to come. The penultimate try in this five-star, five-try show was the  best of the lot. The cherry on the top of the World Cup Cake came with nearly half an hour still to play. After making only 34m of territory from the first tackle until the fifth, the Australians decide to run the ball. Still inside their own half, the ball was moved laterally with ease, through the hands of Thurston, Greg Bird, on to Josh Papalii. The play appears to be dead as the replacement is rebuffed by two black shirts. All of a sudden, he plays an offload under the arm of the onrushing tackler, and Brett Morris is away. Morris kicks and the ball is gathered by the attack-minded Jarryd Hayne, who is tackled just as he gets to the ball. Unlike Rugby Union, where the player would be encouraged and implored to take the tackle and reset play, Hayne has the presence of mind to kick before the ball reaches the floor. Having already knocked the ball on and on the sixth tackle he had no choice but to try and keep play alive, driven by necessity. Morris had the intelligence to keep on running without the ball, sliding on the turf to join Slater in the two-try club. In the act of scoring the try he emphatically slid down the side of the pitch into the advertising hoardings. These Australians were doing everything emphatically.

The coup de grace was provided by Morris, finishing off a length-of the field return try after a Hollywood offload by the supposed best player in the world. Williams’ slight of hand was nothing compared to that of Jarryd Hane, running inside the 40 metre line before having the awareness to put on the brakes slightly, allowing Morris to blaze onto the last pass and run away from the forlorn New Zealand defence. With 34 points in their back pockets, the job turned to professional pride of keeping the Kiwis at bay. By winning the World Cup Final without conceding a try, Australia had yet to experience standing behind their own posts as the opposing kicker kicks a conversion for over four hours, meanwhile forcing the rest of the rugby world to return the favour 48 times throughout the tournament.

For all the talk of ‘avenging’ the defeat at The Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane in 2008, or the fact that there were only 3 competitive teams in the competition, Australia were faultless. It was a masterclass and consummate. The organisers did a fantastic job throughout this month and a half rugby festival to make the game accessible; student and armed forces tickets for the final were only £12.50.

Not for a very long time have my expectations as a rugby fan been met and exceeded. Like the Harlem Globetrotters, but serious. It was easy in the end but there was an efficient grace to their performance, allowing a swagger but not an arrogance that they deserved to be on the world stage in the final weekend. The one annoyance is that this may be a catalyst for the great sporting nation from a land down under to get their sporting swagger back. What a way to start.