Australia overcame an early scare to run away with their first game of the Rugby League World Cup, Storm playmakers Harry Grant and Cameron Munster leading the way, as they defeated a brave but ill-disciplined Fiji 42-8 in an eight-try feast before a crowd of 13,366 at Headingley Stadium in Leeds.
After 1078 days since their last Test, the Kangaroos were shellshocked early when, from Fiji’s first set in possession, the men in white touched down, a deliciously curling grubber from Siti Moceidreke curving back to meet Semi Valemei in the left corner. It was a heartening start for the Fijian Bati that must have cheered coach Joe Rabele who had been rushed to hospital with illness before the kickoff.
The sucker-punch start made Australia lost shape. Fiji had made the most of their one minute in attack, while Australia failed to convert from 14 minutes with the ball. But after some strong Jake Trbojevic charges, Cameron Murray and Daly Cherry-Evans combined, pivoting at pace as they sank into the line. It created the reverse angle for Jeremiah Nanai, slicing back inside to go in under the posts in the 15th minute.
Australia settled and a Munster one-on-one steal set up Nanai for another charge, but this time the big man went just short. Fiji made big metres on their return set and were setting up for a second five-pointer until Kangaroos captain James Tedesco diffused the last-tackle bomb and Hunt shovelled a nondescript pass off the ruck.
But the men it found are anything but nondescript. Instead of running off the line Latrell Mitchell quickly flipped it on to Josh Addo-Carr. Cruelly shunned by NSW coach Brad Fittler for State of Origin but prized in Mal Meninga’s national set-up, The Foxx put on the after after-burners to escape rush hour and go coast-to-coast, scything through Fiji’s back three with speed and guile to put the Kangaroos clear at 10-4.
Nearing the half-hour mark Fiji’s big defenders were tiring and Meninga brought on Reuben Cotter to exploit it. But it was Fiji who found the wind. Api Koroisau’s stabbed kick on the line was too fast for the chasers. Australia rumbled downfield and after Munster fumbled Hunt’s bomb, they tried again. This time Angus Crichton got on the left shoulder of Munster at pace and reached out for his first try in green and gold.
Before the break, Kangaroos centre Mitchell looked to have scored a final try, stomping over from a metre out, but Crichton was harshly adjudged to have knocked on in the play the ball. It left the score at 18-4 at halftime, as the slick track at Leeds loosened the paint on the field and left the players walking off smeared in white.
Crichton definitely erred straight after the break, a sloppy play-the-ball giving Fiji what they needed: the opportunity to score first. They fumbled that first chance but Australia made the most of theirs, Addo-Carr exploiting a sliver space on the left, then offloading to Munster who stayed alive until Mitchell loomed and cantered away.
Clear on the scoreboard, Australia now unfurled a few trick shots. Most of them flopped but were fun to watch. It took Harry Grant to reassert the Kangaroo’s class. In the 52nd minute, the little pivot barrelled a sublime 40-20 down the line to set up in the corner and then, icing what he started, scooted over untouched from the next set. Captain James Tedesco then jinked infield and through on the hour mark.
The collisions had been massive between both teams all night but Cotter mistimed his run from the restart and the ensuing head clash with Tui Kamikamica had both seeing stars and heading for the sheds. Fiji were also left reeled shortly afterward when a Grant kick punctured a tired defence to gift a second try for Addo-Carr. Valentine Holmes hadn’t missed all night and he skirted the inside post to make it 42-4.
Fiji got a late consolation try, a neat grubber and patient touchdown for Turuva making it 42-8. But a rollercoaster game, riven with errors, but bejewelled with sensational tries had eventually run its natural course with a dominant display by Australia sounding a warning shot to all. Not that the St James Park PA would’ve picked it up, the system fizzling one set in to the Kaiser Chiefs’ curtain raising set.
Fiji showed both skill and mettle to banish their 50-0 trouncing by England in the warmups and show they can be a force in future games. Australia will be pleased with a tough hit-out that shucked the rust, slicked the combinations and got them rolling toward a title defence. They will likely bring in Nathan Cleary at playmaker, shifting Cherry-Evans to hooker, and that will turbocharge the Kangaroos’ potency further.
“I’m happy with that,” Australia’s coach Mal Meninga surmised afterward. “We got through it pretty well. Really happy with the defence. A few things to fix up with the ball, but overall, very happy.
“We’ve got some competition in the team,” Meninga added of the likely Cleary inclusion, amongst others, for the Kangaroo’s next game against Scotland next Saturday. “We’ll rest a few guys next week and play some others who can put their foot forward. We talked about how it would be clunky from our point of view. We’ve only been here for a week. We’ll improve as the tournament goes on.”