ALL the pre-match talk had been about Darren Lockyer but it was his less revered half-back partner Jonathan Thurston who got Australia’s Gillette Four Nations off to a winning start.
Illustrious captain Lockyer will retire at the end of the tournament and the Kangaroos are desperate to send him off in style.
However, it was the class of Thurston which came to the fore as Australia edged through a nervy but ferocious opening game against holders New Zealand.
The impish North Queensland Cowboys scrum-half scored one try, created others for Tony Williams and Darius Boyd and added three conversions while his skills lit up what had been at times a surreal encounter in Warrington.
Although the Halliwell Jones Stadium was close to capacity, it was eerily quiet given there were so few travelling supporters.
The majority of the 12,491 crowd were neutral and maybe, instead of choosing a side, they had come simply to pay reverence to the skills of the two sides deemed the finest in the world.
There was little of the expected flair early on to warrant much adulation but the silence was instead broken sporadically with gasps of amazement at the ferocity of some of the tackling.
Whether it was a swinging arm from the hulking Australian prop Paul Gallen that somehow fortunately missed a Kiwi head or one of numerous heavy hits from huge New Zealand replacement Jared Waera-Hargreaves, the fearsome defence did plenty to warm up any tourists who may have been feeling the chilly conditions.
Australia had taken the lead after just 106 seconds when prop Matthew Scott barged through some weak defence close in for Thurston to convert.
However, it did not initiate the immediate points avalanche which had seen them ease past the Kiwis 42-6 12 days earlier back in Newcastle. Some unusually slack handling meant they failed to build much pressure early on and, with New Zealand similarly erring, it offered plenty of hope to the England head coach Steve McNamara who watched the contest flanked by his assistants Jimmy Lowes and Daryl Powell.
It was only when Thurston came alive that Australia – desperate to reclaim their title having also lost the 2008 World Cup to the Kiwis – began looking like the odds-on favourites they are.
He had already survived a late charge after a kick from Jeremy Smith – as he would from Waerea-Hargreaves later – as the Kiwis marked him out, but there was no denying him when his pass put Williams charging through a weak Benji Marshall tackle in the 28th minute.
He converted and then Thurston crossed for Australia’s third try on 36 minutes finishing off a move he started with a slip ball that sent Williams racing past Marshall, the Kiwi captain badly exposed defensively once more.
Stooping, he accepted the return pass and the scrum-half just managed to touch down despite the best efforts of Simon Mannering’s desperate tackle.
The Kiwis responded on 46 minutes with Kieran Foran’s kick causing problems for Chris Lawrence under pressure from Gerard Beale, the loose ball bouncing off Thurston’s leg to allow Nightingale to pounce for a try awarded by video referee Ben Thaler.
Marshall converted again and they were over again in the 55th minute. Australia conceded a cheap penalty when Anthony Watmough blatantly poked out possession in a three-man tackle and from there the Kiwis struck with a classic score.
Beale did brilliantly to palm down another Foran crossfield kick and when Mannering recovered possession, Marshall took over as he, Nightingale and Beale linked splendidly to slice open the Kangaroos’ left edge and send Kalifa Faifailoa crashing over.
Marshall’s conversion brought it back to 16-12 and the Kiwis had further chances – Locke spilling as an overlap appeared – so they were left to rue their poor execution when Thurston teased them once more, dummying before somehow finding a great pass for Lawrence to usher Boyd over in the 64th minute.
The creator curled over another conversion before Kiwi hooker Isaac Luke was fortunate not to be punished for diving at the knees of Australian forward Dave Shillington who required lengthy treatment after falling badly under the weight of the tackle.
Jason Nightingale almost created a spectacular score when he threw a pass between his legs while chasing a kick for Locke to touch down but Thaler ruled his feet had been over the dead ball line when he performed the astonishing move.
Typically, it was Thurston who acrobatically intercepted to put Australia in position for their final try, Akuila Uate latching onto Billy Slater’s delicately grubbered kick, with four minutes remaining.
Australia: Slater; Uate, Tonga, Lawrence, Boyd; Lockyer, Thurston; Gallen, C Smith, Scott, Lewis, Thaiday, Watnough. Substitutes: Cronk, Galloway, Shillington, Williams.
New Zealand: Locke; Faifailoa, Brown, Beale, Nightingale; Marshall, Foran; Matulino, Luke, McKendry, Manu, Mannering, J Smith. Substitutes: Leuluai, Moimoi, Glenn, Waerea-Hargreaves.
Referee: Phil Bentham (Warrington).
New Zealand Warriors half-back Isaac John has signed for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats on a three-year deal.
John, 22, played in the NRL Grand Final against Manly Sea Eagles earlier this month.
Salford’s first game at their new Salford City Stadium at Barton will be a pre-season friendly against Wigan on Tuesday, January 24.