Rugby League: Valiant Kiwis can hold heads high in defeat

By Peter Jessup

By Peter Jessup

Anzac spirit?

Yes, plenty of it last night as the Kiwis did themselves proud with a hard-fought 14-20 loss to Australia to add considerable credibility to the now annual Anzac test encounter.

Eleven players missing? Really?

What might have happened if the visitors had had all their troops available. Certainly no one on the field last night looked out of place and there were plenty of positives for Frank Endacott's mob as they look ahead to the Tri-series and the World Cup.

It was end-to-end stuff, entertainment-plus as the Kiwis took it to Australia at speed and with invention.

They stirred the home side up with big, organised defence and the unexpected on attack and went three-for-three in the try count against their much-vaunted opponents.

The Kiwis were in it until the last minute, when they denied the Kangaroos a late try, and throughout gave themselves every opportunity to win.

They were out to a 6-0 lead after just three minutes thanks to some combined brilliance from Stacey Jones on the break and Robbie Paul taking the inside pass to go under the bar.

A string of errors from the Australians gave them more territory and opportunity and with the New Zealand forwards making good metres in each set, the Kiwis were on a roll.

Henry Paul offered something the Kangaroos were not used to out of dummy-half.

When the Kiwis won a penalty on their 20m line for holding in the tackle he did the unexpected - tapped and ran - and had picked up 60m and the collective indrawn breath of the crowd of 30,000 at Stadium Australia as he ran in and out of Darren Lockyer, Wendell Sailor and Laurie Daley before they cut off his options.

It was well into the second quarter before the Australians looked to have woken up. When they did, they turned on one of those genius tries you have to love no matter who you support.

Laurie Daley ran Sean Hoppe in and out and, when sandwiched, found Alfie Langer who stood and handed off to Wendell Sailor. Mat Rogers converted.

Richie Barnett nearly had a second for the Kiwis when Lockyer lost a kick, Barnett plucking a bouncing ball and slamming it over the line but the video ref ruled a knock-on.

Locked up 6-6 at the break, the visitors still had every opportunity.

But disappointingly, they started winning the error count and when Joe Vagana rolled the ball back without touching it with his foot he took pressure off, the Australians scoring just a minute later after a break from Gorden Tallis, a high kick from captain Fittler gathered by Darren Smith.

At 49 minutes the Kiwis had a similar one back, Jones dropping the crosskick on Rogers, who could not handle it, and Logan Swann there for the regather.

At 58 minutes, Brad Fittler crossed after David Kidwell missed Daley going past.

At 64 minutes the Kiwis responded again, Willie Talau taking the defence and getting the offload to put Lesley Vainikolo on a straight run at and over Lockyer and it was 18-14: that opportunity was still there.

The Kiwis ran out of nothing but time.

Henry Paul was about to be stretchered off with four minutes to go, after his head folded under him as he was tackled by Gorden Tallis, but he eventually stood and walked to the cart in a move that symbolised their effort. He was not lying down for anyone.

McCracken could not have been prouder of his team's performance and wanted to single out the efforts of the five test newcomers in the side.

"I told them before we went out there that this was a great chance for them to cement a place in the World Cup side for next year and I reckon they took their opportunity with both hands," he said.

McCracken believed it was an even game which either side could have won.

"We almost crossed a couple of times in that first half, but it wasn't to be.

"But the guys never put their heads down and I think the Aussies know they've been in a game."

McCracken said the scrum-base combination of Robbie Paul and Jones would serve New Zealand for many years to come and thought Henry Paul was another potential match winner.

Australia 20 (Wendell Sailor, Darren Smith, Brad Fittler tries; Mat Rogers 3 con, pen)

New Zealand 14 (Robbie Paul, Logan Swann, Lesley Vainikolo tries; Henry Paul con). Halftime 6-6.

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