By STEVE DEANE
SHAUN JOHNSON is a pretty good player and new Kiwis coach David Kidwell is a fast learner. Those were the major takeaways from a New Zealand perspective after their tremendous 17-16 victory over England in their Four Nations opener.
No doubt England fans are a bit glum after this result. That’s understandable. But that shouldn’t distract from the fact that this was a Test match for the ages.
Such was the quality and sheer enjoyability of the match, the fact that the Kiwis won was, to me, pretty much incidental. Of course, it’s easy to say that when ‘your’ team comes out on top. But I’d still feel the same had the result been reversed – which it easily could have been.
A couple of dropped passes consigned England to magnificent losers instead of valorous victors. That is a harsh fate. However only a draw could have prevented the undeserved from happening to one of the contestants.
Kidwell described the match as a “war of nutrition”, suggesting that either he was so emotionally drained he couldn’t quite nail the right word, or that the Kiwis had got their half-time snacking regime spot on.
Given my experience of sitting next to Kidwell at a U20s grand final between South Sydney and Warriors a few years ago, I’m guessing the former.
Kidwell raged and roared throughout that match, with the thin interior wall between the coaches’ and press boxes providing little protection for my ears and uncorrupted young soul (okay I was 36 and recovering from an opiate addiction, but you get the point).
Kidwell’s raging finally stopped when his young Rabbitohs conceded a death knell try. There was an almighty bang followed by a horrible silence. I genuinely feared for Kidwell’s wellbeing. Happily he emerged unscathed, heart and head somehow intact. But given the intensity of his love for the Kiwis jersey, it’s hard to see how he will survive his new job without spontaneously combusting.
Unlike his first Test in charge in Perth, this time there were no missteps from the coach. The behemoth Jason Taumalolo was given license to crush all before him, and did so. For British fans not overly familiar with Taumalolo, he began his career as a fleet-footed teenager looking every bit like he’d be the next Sonny Bill Williams.
However, while Williams remained lean, long and fast, Taumalolo has morphed into a battle tank. The muscles on top of muscles grafted onto his massive frame give him the appearance of indestructibility, while stopping him before the gain line is an outright impossibility.
In the close quarters combat of international footy – where the 10m line shrinks drastically and the level of defensive intensity and execution increases tenfold – the old methods are still the best. A quick Taumalolo play-the-ball followed by an Issac Luke snipe will be a deadly combination throughout this series.
And then there is Johnson, the much-maligned halfback whose contribution to a collective kicking game against the Kangaroos in Perth rated possibly the worst in Kiwis history could not be ignored.
As great players do, Johnson bounced back in style in Huddersfield, producing the finest kicking performance of his career. Throw in his decisive drop-goal and intercept try and it is easy see how Johnson picked up the man of the match award.
However, it was the collective efforts of the Kiwis forwards Taumalolo, Manu Ma’u and Adam Blair that proved decisive, at least to these eyes. Forced to withstand a blistering start by an inspired England and a furious finish by a desperate England, the Kiwis pack stood tall.
I’m sure to England fans the result feels like another dose of the same dispiriting medicine they have been forced to swallow in recent times. But that isn’t exactly accurate. Yes, England have done less than nothing in tournament play this century, while the Kiwis have tasted their share of success. But when it comes to the head-to-head match-up things could not be more even.
Since 2000 there have been 25 matches between the Kiwis and England/Great Britain. Both nations have won 12 matches, with one drawn.
If, to an English fan, that new-found parity feels like being overtaken, that is mainly because it didn’t exist for the previous 92 years, when England was largely far superior.
What we have now is genuine equality between the nations. Matches, which are often settled by a single point or dramatic play, remain rare enough to be genuine curiosities.
They are true contests that nearly always deliver a sublime spectacle. They should be celebrated regardless of the result… particularly when the Kiwis win.