Drama reigned in the final moments before standoff Te Maire Martin’s 79th-minute field goal sealed the Junior Kiwis’ 15-14 win in a pulsating contest against the Junior Kangaroos at Mount Smart Stadium on Saturday night.
Martin’s one-pointer should have closed the match out with so little time left but the Junior Kiwis then found ways of giving their counterparts not one but two last-second chances to ruin their evening.
The first came from the restart after Martin’s field goal. With so little time left the Junior Kangaroos’ sole hope was to regain possession from a short kick-off; when it didn’t travel the required 10 metres it should have been game over there and then with a penalty on halfway to the home side – only the Junior Kiwis foolishly played at the ball inside the 10 and conceded a penalty themselves.
Now there was time for only one play for the Junior Kangaroos after putting the ball into touch. They could have gone for the bomb option but instead they opted to set up for a long-range field goal in the hope of rescuing a draw.
Cue more drama. Halfback Ryan Matterson lined up the one-point attempt but he was clattered by Junior Kiwis prop Sam Lisone who raced up to try to block the shot. The kick was no chance but Matterson was left dazed on the ground from a heavy collision, referee Shane Rehm duly awarding another penalty to the Australians.
Moments earlier they were content to escape with a draw but now quite amazingly they had the opportunity to win the game 16-15. It was all down to fullback Clint Gutherson as he lined up the penalty from 40 metres, he and his team-mates hoping for an unlikely shot at glory while in front of them nerves were jangling for the Junior Kiwis, especially for Lisone.
Gutherson wasn’t up to the challenge, sinking to his knees in despair after fluffing the attempt to send the Junior Kiwis into delirium followed a few minutes later by a rousing victory haka in front of the East Stand.
It was the Junior Kiwis’ third victory in their last five clashes against the Australians and their second on end at home stretching back four years to the 36-20 triumph in Rotorua in 2010; they also won in Newcastle in 2011 while they lost in Townsville in 2012 and in Sydney last year.
Heavy rain throughout the afternoon had cruelly restricted the crowd to just over 2000 hardy souls, including a dash of Australian support, most notably Joe Ofahengaue’s personal fan club.
What unfolded was a contest high on intensity, aggression and unbridled passion. As much was evident in the pre-match haka, the two sides advancing until they were nose to nose and close to a physical confrontation before hostilities had officially started.
Once under way there was nothing in it on the scoreboard at any stage although there was ample niggle as youthful exuberance threatened to spill over in several melees, the Australians arguably and unwisely spicing it up with their defiance in front of the haka.
The Junior Kangaroos had a much more experienced side. While the Junior Kiwis boasted just second rower Joseph Tapine who had appeared at NRL level, the Junior Kangaroos had eight in their final playing 17.
The disparity didn’t show as the Junior Kiwis, despite conceding the first try, then scored the next two before going to halftime locked up at 10-10.
The home side edged to a 14-10 lead in the 46th minute through skilful fullback Kodi Nikorima. Running onto a Zach Dockar-Clay pass (Dockar-Clay was critically involved in all three tries), Nikorima, stepped, dummied and then ran on and on through the Australian line to slide over.
Eight minutes later it was 14-14 when Valentine Holmes had his second try on a night when the wingers accounted for five of the six tries scored with both sides caught on the edges when they were unable to defend repeat sets.
It remained 14-14 for the next 25 minutes with both sides unsuccessful with one pointers in the final minutes.
That was until the 79th minute. On a night when the Junior Kiwis’ big men made a huge impression, it was Dockar-Clay, one of their smallest, who profited the most. He sniped and probed throughout, making the match-winning break to give Martin his opening.
After Dockar-Clay was stopped deep inside the 20, Martin was cool with his finish but it wasn’t quite enough to settle the team’s nerves in the frantic moments which ensured before victory was finally sealed.
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Junior Kiwis 15 (Sam Manuleleua, Chance Peni, Kodi Nikorima tries; Zach Dockar-Clay conversion; Te Maire Martin field goal).
Junior Kangaroos 14 (Valentine Holmes 2, Jake Mamo tries; Clint Gutherson conversion).
Referee: Shane Rehm.
Junior Kiwis | Kodi Nikorima; Chance Peni, Taane Milne, Watson Heleta, Sam Manuleleua; Te Maire Martin, Zach Dockar-Clay; Sam Lisone (v-c), Manaia Cherrington (c), Addin Fonua-Blake; Joseph Tapine, Nelson Asofa-Solomona; Josh Aloiai. Interchange: Danny Levi, Lamar Liolevave, Braden Uele, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard.
Junior Kangaroos | Clint Gutherson; Valentine Holmes, Brett Greinke, Euan Aitken, Jake Mamo; Drew Hutchison, Ryan Matterson; Matthew Lodge, Cameron McInnes, Joe Ofahengaue; Patrick Mago, Tevita Pangai; Kelepi Tanginoa. Interchange: Jack Bird, Willis Meehan, Cameron Munster, Andy Saunders.