The Four Nations, and the rugby league season as a whole, came to a close yesterday afternoon with a thrilling tie between the two giants of the game: Australia and New Zealand.
Having won every game they played in the competition so far, Australia were most definitely the favourites to win. Their form has been spectacular recently, with coach Mal Meninga emphasising the need for a change in team culture to improve performance. Clearly producing a winning mentality, Australia regained the world number one ranking with this victory, the sixth in six matches following Meninga’s installation as coach.
Over 40,000 fans flooded Anfield yesterday to watch this revived Australian squad face New Zealand, who were the previous Four Nations title holders. Although this match was somewhat one-sided, New Zealand haven’t been poor this competition by any means, but they have definitely been inconsistent. They narrowly beat England 16-17 in the opening game, then lost to Australia, with a much more modest points difference than the final, and then drew to Scotland in a historic match. Perhaps they weren’t playing at their finest in every fixture, but they did what they have to do to beat England and claim their place in the final.
However that isn’t high praise considering England’s performances this year. The arrival of new coach Wayne Bennett, and the return of Sam Burgess gave hope to England supporters before the competition got underway, encouraging them to believe that they could finally win the title. Being the only of the permanent nations not to have won the title, England already start each campaign under a lot of pressure.
Perhaps Wayne Bennett crumbled under this pressure, especially considering the belief that he was second best. Since his appointment, there have been rumours that he was only given the England job because Meninga was already being handed the same role for Australia. He’s come under much criticism that he isn’t doing enough to promote and develop Rugby League, at both a club and country level, to promising athletes in the UK. Some aspects have been out of Bennett’s control though. Losing Wigan Warrior’s Sean O’Loughlin to a hamstring injury and Sam Tomkins to foot surgery was a real loss, even before the first match had kicked off.
But we can’t let New Zealand’s inconsistency and England’s domestic problems take away from Australia’s glowing campaign. Australia’s win wasn’t due to the other nations being poor; it was due to the dominant, clinical performances. The only team to win all three matches, and the team to have scored the most points and to have conceded the least, Australia were clearly the most deserved team.
Analysis of the final illustrates this. Leading 24-0 at half time, and then 34-8 at full time, they showed their strength wasn’t only in the fast-paced, dynamic attack, but also in the careful and thorough defensive areas. Six tries with five different scorers highlights he depth of this team; they’re not reliant on just a few key players. One key player who did stand out across the whole campaign was full-back Darius Boyd, who topped off his performance this year setting up two tries and scoring another for his team. His record of never being on the losing side internationally still stands.
Having only been installed for a short period of time, Meninga’s positive contribution is making a difference, and being highly respected. After the match, he commented that he was proud of what him and his team has achieved. He was especially proud that he managed to regain the title and the number one ranking in Anfield, the home of his supported Liverpool FC.
This year’s competition has seen ground-breaking performances, records being broken and new ones being made. Supporters now just have to wait until the next time these teams come together, to see what new histories can be written.
By Laura McNally.