IN RUGBY league at least, the old order has been restored in 2016.
After two years playing second fiddle to New Zealand, Australia are back as the world’s No 1 ranked team following a dominant Four Nations campaign.
The Kangaroos have been efficient rather than exciting during a disappointing tournament, but they turned on the style to crush New Zealand 34-8 in a one-sided final at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium.
New Zealand applied some pressure in the early stages, but failed to take advantage and were ruthlessly punished for a series of errors as Australia opened a 24-0 interval lead.
The second half was more even, the four tries being shared, but the result was beyond doubt by that stage and the 26-point margin was a fair reflection of Australia’s superiority.
Australia were unbeaten during the tournament and on this evidence will go into next year’s World Cup as strong favourites.
The final was not the showpiece rugby league had been hoping for. With England having already crashed out, most of the 40,042 crowd were supporting New Zealand, but they had little to shout about and by late in the first half the Kop were amusing themselves by throwing paper planes on to the pitch.
That was unfair on Australia, whose performance – particularly in the opening period – was out of the top drawer.
The 2016 vintage may not be the greatest Australian side, but contains several outstanding players, in particular half-backs Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk and hooker Cameron Smith. Cronk was named player of the series and full-back Darius Boyd, who set up the first two tries and scored one himself, was the final’s man of the match.
New Zealand, weakened by the loss of Thomas Leuluai – who suffered a broken draw in the previous week’s draw with Scotland – were a disappointment.
They could not match Australia for skill, pace or power, but did salvage some pride by digging in for the final half an hour after going 28 points behind.
The writing was on the wall from the second minute when Australia scored the first of their six tries.
Kiwi forward Manu Ma’u fumbled near his own line and Boyd sent Blake Ferguson over from the resulting scrum.
New Zealand, with Adam Blair setting a strong lead, took the game to the Kangaroos for a spell after that, on the back of three successive penalties and an error by Boyd Cordner.
They should have scored when Jordan Rapana split the defence and dropped the ball back to Shaun-Kenny-Dowall, but Shaun Johnson – who was in support – could not make the most of a two-on-one overlap.
The move broke down, Australia counter-attacked and Josh Dugan went over from another pin-point pass by Boyd.
Thurston could not convert, but landed a penalty after a knock-on and then flop by Rapana as the Kangaroos took a stranglehold on the game.
A mistake by New Zealand’s Issac Luke led to Trent Merrin barging over and Thurston’s conversion and another penalty, after a high tackle by Martin Taupau on Tyson Frizell, made it 20-0 after just 28 minutes.
The job was already done, but Australia kept their foot down and Dugan scored his second try when he touched down Thurston’s grubber eight minutes before the break.
It could have been even worse for New Zealand, but Luke managed to get a hand under the ball to prevent a try by Greg Inglis.
Australia went further in front just four minutes into the second half, Boyd slicing through for a richly-deserved try from Thurston’s pass.
On 54 minutes Valentine Holmes had a touchdown at the corner ruled out by video official Bernard Sutton and New Zealand stemmed the tide after that.
The whitewash which had looked likely up to that point was avoided four minutes later, on the back of successive penalties, when Jordan Kahu crossed for a try from Kevin Proctor’s pass after Johnson had handled.
He added his second 12 minutes from time, profiting from good work by Kenny-Dowall, but Kahu could not convert either of his tries and Australia fittingly had the last laugh, Cordner crashing over the top of the full-back from a pass by Thurston, whose conversion completed the scoring in the 73rd minute.
Australia: D Boyd, Ferguson, Dugan, Inglis, Holmes, Thurston, Cronk, Scott, Smith, Woods, Cordner, Gillett, Merrin. Substitutes: Morgan, Klemmer, Frizell, S Boyd.
New Zealand: Kahu,Fusitu’a, Kata, Dowall, Rapana, Harris, Johnson, Bromwich, Luke, Blair, Proctor, Ma’u, Taumalolo. Substitutes: Brown, Taupau, Eastwood, Tapine.
Referee: B Cummins (Australia).