Inexperienced Kiwis give Kangaroos scare
They were unrecognisable compared to the side obliterated in the World Cup final, and their performance also bore no resemblance to one of New Zealand rugby league's grimmest defeats as a new-look Kiwis team passed a credibility test in Sydney last night.
An Anzac Test win for the first time since 1998 remains elusive - and the Kangaroos have now won eight successive Trans-Tasman internationals - but a line-up containing five new caps and only five survivors from a 34-2 thrashing in Manchester last November at least won back respect as New Zealand plans ahead for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Expected to provide only token resistance, the Kiwis instead kept the Australians at bay until Cooper Cronk's 73rd minute try sealed a 30-18 victory before an unexpectedly vibrant crowd of 25,449 at Allianz Stadium.
Until Cronk rounded off a perfectly executed break out the Kiwis still had faint hopes of staging a massive upset, but the Kangaroos' composure ultimately allowed them to retain the Bill Kelly Memorial Trophy.
After trailing 18-12 at halftime, the Kangaroos racked up three unanswered tries to justify the world champion status they earned at Old Trafford, though Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney was far from despondent after a squad missing several automatic choices turned in a gritty collective effort.
Kearney prefers not to revisit the Kiwis' unsuccessful World Cup defence, though the quality of last night's display meant there was no avoiding a comparison.
"I think for us, if I take us back to the back-end of the (World Cup) last year, from our point of view in terms of New Zealand rugby league and our jumper, things didn't end so well there and it was important in our next outing to get some respect and some pride back into our jumper.
"I thought the lads did that," said Kearney, who had been heavily criticised for not selecting prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and rugby-bound RLIF player of the year Sonny Bill Williams.
Asked if he felt vindicated after his 18-man squad was ridiculed in Australia, Kearney insisted: "I didn't buy into any of that during the week, and there was a fair bit of it.
"I knew I had a spirited bunch of individuals who were willing to wear the jumper with a great deal of pride and perform with a great deal of spirit and that's all my focus was on all week.
"I wasn't trying to make any statement. I just wanted to pick a team that I knew would represent our jumper as good as it could with a great deal or spirit and energy and pride."
Unfortunately for the Kiwis, they could sustain their performance in the opening half as Shaun Johnson's kicking game deteriorated.
"Maybe a touch of class," Kearney said, when asked what was needed to overcome an Australian side equipped to construct decisive plays.
Still, he was proud of the resolve shown by a team given a 22.5 point head start by Australian bookmakers.
"I was extremely heartened. To be fair I could see that all week. I expected that from them," he said, lauding the contributions of props Sam Moa, Jesse Bromwich, interchange forward Greg Eastwood and recalled back rower Adam Blair.
"When you've got five new caps that experience is crucial," he said.
Meanwhile, Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens had to rely on his veterans to switch on after a lethargic opening played into the Kiwis' hands when Bromwich scored in the sixth minute.
"We gave away the softest of tries and elevated them energy wise for the rest of the half, let alone for the rest of the game," he said.
"We wanted to build pressure in the first 20 minutes and if anything we released the pressure by doing those stupid things."
Fullback Billy Slater acknowledged the Kangaroos were disappointed at halftime, though were always confident of winning.
"We were still pretty composed and we were very confident in what we were able to achieve," he said.
"We know what we've got. We played some great football in the World Cup final, we knew we could do it."