Australia warmed up for next weekend’s Pacific Rugby League Championship Final with a superb 36-18 victory over New Zealand in Melbourne.
Despite already booking their places in the final showdown, both sides were desperate to make a statement in front of 20,584 fans at AAMI Park.
Australia had recorded a 38-12 victory over Samoa in their opening game in the tournament, while New Zealand triumphed 50-0 against the same opponents the following week.
Given the disparity between the two winning margins, the Kiwis went into their final group game believing they could see off Australia’s challenge.
The atmosphere was electric before kick-off, with the arch-rivals staring intently at each other for more than a minute after New Zealand performed the haka.
Australia soon gained the upper hand when the action finally got underway, with James Tedesco’s kick expertly snapped up by Valentine Holmes who went over for his 20th try in 20 Tests.
Jahrome Hughes brought New Zealand back into the contest, but two tries by Lindsay Collins put Australia 18-6 ahead and seemingly in cruise control by the 30-minute mark.
However, the Kiwis refused to lie down and reduced the deficit to six points courtesy of Ronaldo Mulitalo. The comeback was short lived as full-back Dylan Edwards gabbed his first international try to restore Australia’s 12-point advantage.
A Holmes penalty pushed the Kangaroos further in front, but Fa’amanu Brown gave New Zealand a glimmer of hope when he made it 26-18 in the 70th minute. Australia stepped on the gas again and were rewarded as Ben Hunt and Cameron Murray added further tries to secure the victory and send them into the final in a buoyant mood.
The victory extended head coach Mal Meninga’s unbeaten home record to 12 wins and he will fancy his chances of extending that run when the two teams face each other again next weekend.
“I thought it was an excellent performance and the things we wanted to get through we did,” Maninga said. “Our second half was amazing, our completion rate was great, we controlled field position and we have got some quality players in our footy team that can take advantage of that.
“The beauty of our team is that they keep going – it’s fun to coach. The effort was really good, not only tonight, but through the week.”
Maninga was not alone in being impressed with his team’s performance, as several online bookmakers slashed their odds to win the final next weekend.
The rematch is part of a stellar few days in Australian sport, with the prestigious four-day Melbourne Cup Carnival getting underway on the same day. The top betting sites in Australia will be inundated with traffic as punters strive to build their bankroll before wagering on ‘the race that stops the nation’ the following Tuesday.
Most bettors will be confident that Maninga’s team can get the job done given the manner of their victory over New Zealand on Saturday. Their belief will be strengthened by the post-match comments made by the Kiwis’ head coach Michael Maguire, who admitted his team had been outclassed by their opponents.
“There was a lot of good about it, but we will take a fair bit out of it for what we need to do this [coming] week and tidy up,” Maguire said. “The second half I felt we probably just weren’t where we needed to be.
“Australia spent a lot of time in our half and when you are having to defend like that it’s [using] energy. We put ourselves under a fair bit of pressure.”
New Zealand Women had better luck in their encounter with Australia Women, ending a seven-year losing streak against their rivals to secure a 12-6 victory in their Pacific Championship clash.
Jaime Chapman gave Australia an early lead, but tries by Mele Hufanga and Leianne Tufuga ensured the Kiwis emerged victorious in Melbourne.
The game was a bad-tempered affair, with Australian players Jess Sergis, Kezie Apps and Olivia Kernick all placed on report by the referee during the contest.