By STEVE MASCORD
AUSTRALIAN players repeatedly claimed before the World Cup final that revenge was not a motivation. “Probably told a little white lie,” captain Cameron Smith admitted after his men reclaimed in ruthless fashion the trophy lost to New Zealand five years ago.
Tim Sheens’ men brought their total minutes at the World Cup without conceding a try to 404 with a crushing 34-2 victory in front of a world Test record 74,468 crowd at Old Trafford. The gamble to include Billy Slater despite a knee injury payed off; he posted two tries.
“We probably told a little white lie along the way, where this didn’t mean much against what happened in 2008,” said hooker Smith.
“But I think, standing out on that field after the match, a little bit of that disappointment from 2008 was erased.”.
Coach Sheens admitted his career, and that of his medical staff, had been put on the line with the decision to play fullback Slater. “He had to be bashed (at training) and he was,’ Sheens said. “He had to get through Greg Inglis, who secretly wanted the fullback role.”
But after losing Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to a leg injury following just six minutes of play, rival Stephen Kearney denied any such risk despite the winger having been in doubt with a similar injury during the build-up.
“We think there’s a hairline fracture there,” said Kearney, “(but) we did all the relevant tests and x-rays during the week and there was nothing wrong with him there. In his first carry, he heard a crack.”
Australia held a decisive 16-2 lead at halftime, after attacking the right side defence left vulnerable by Tuivasa-Sheck’s departure. But Australia centre Jarryd Hayne also went down with apparent concussion – before playing on in what should prompt a review of concussion enforcement in internationals.
The first points arrived when Kieran Foran was ruled to have taken out chaser Billy Slater in front of the New Zealand sticks, Johnathan Thurston landing the penalty goal. When Cameron Smith took Elijah Taylor high, the ledger was levelled.
While proceedings to this point led some commentators to compare this to a rugby union international, it soon began to more closely resemble an AFL match with attacking kicks holding sway.
At 20 minutes, Johnathan Thurston dropped a kick just inside the field of play, and to the right of the posts, where it was claimed by Melbourne’s Slater.
He spun midair as he avoided Foran, before ducking under Bryson Goodwin to score.
Rather than allow the modest in-goal areas to supress their kicking game, Australia just seem to become more accurate. Hemmed into a corner by the Kiwis defence, Jarryd Hayne centre-kicked for Cronk who wrestled with Issac Luke as he attempted to get the ball down.
Replays suggested Melbourne’s Cronk did touch the Steeden to the turf – but video referee Ashley Klein chalked off the four points.
There was no denying halfback Cronk four minutes later, however – and again the try was orchestrated by foot rather than hand. Brett Morris made the break, Darius Boyd kicked ahead and the no.7 won the race.
Thurston’s conversion made it 14-2 and a later penalty goal brought up the halftime ledger.
What the contest sorely needed immediately after the break was a New Zealand try. Instead, Slater set the the crowd on a course for the Mexican wave by backing up a break made by winger Boyd and engineered by man of the match Thurston to score his second.
Tries from kicks and interceptions are often derided as having not been honestly earned but there was no denying Australia’s dominance as they scored from one of each in the remaining 39 minutes.
The first of winger Morris’ brace started with a sublime flick pass from replacement Josh Papalii to the flanker, who kicked ahead. Hayne attempted to regather but hacked at the ball with his foot – with devastating effect.
Morris spectacularly won the race to the ball but then barreled into the fence, injuring a hip in the process. Rival Manu Vatuvei also collided with a hoarding in another incident that seemed to confirm the fears of players, expressed on match eve, about the slender in-goal areas and elevated pitch.
Centre Greg Inglis suffered a suspected broken bone in his hand, while Morris’ hip injury was said to not be serious. Sheens said it was the best performance in his time as Australia coach, and that he had not made a decision on his future.
Kearney said the youth in his side was a consolation. “Next time we find ourselves in that position, Australia’s performance is what it’s going to take to lift that trophy again,” he said.
AUSTRALIA 34 (Billy Slater 2, Brett Morris 2, Cooper Cronk tries; Johnathan Thurston 7 goals) beat NEW ZEALAND 2 (Shaun Johnson goal) at Old Trafford. Referee: Richard Silverwood (England).
Filed for SYDNEY MORNING HERALD