Australia’s men beat Samoa 38-12 to start their Pacific Cup campaign in style while fullback Tamika Upton scored a double on international debut for the women’s team in a narrow 16-10 win over a gallant New Zealand.
The Kangaroos’ win was set up by powerhouse displays by props Payne Haas and Tino Fa’asumaleaui who dominated the opening quarter of Saturday night’s contest in Townsville.
Samoa debutant Sua Faalogo, who had played just the one – brilliant – NRL game for the Melbourne Storm, announced himself as one of the most exciting young players in the game. His speed and dazzling footwork came to the fore but it was also his safety under several high balls that caught the eye in an accomplished display by the 20-year-old.
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Faalogo had what would have been the try of the night disallowed when he chipped over James Tedesco’s head and regathered, but the Bunker took it off him due to a knock-on in the leadup play. The Storm young gun also had a hand in creating Luciano Leilua’s second-half try.
The hosts set up the win in the opening 16 minutes when they raced out to a 22-0 lead. Haas stamped his reputation as the world’s best prop with a typically blockbusting try where he carried Samoan forward Connelly Lemuelu over the line with him to score the opener.
Captain Tedesco sliced through feeble Samoan defence from a scrum to make it 10-0 after 10 minutes. Haas had set the benchmark and his fellow starting prop Fa’asuamaleaui followed suit to score and continue the carnage.
Sualauvi Faalogo steps out of a Cameron Murray tackle. Photograph: Scott Radford-Chisholm/AAP
After another rampaging Haas charge, second-rower Cameron Murray scored in his fifth straight Test, to join Ron Coote (six in 1968-69) and Steve Menzies (five in 1995) as the only Australian forwards to do so.
The match needed a Samoan try desperately at that point and winger Murray Taulagi delivered after a deft dab of a kick by second-rower Leilua.
The visitors had their chances to get back into the match but Kangaroos centre Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, on Test debut, put an end to that when he raced 80m on the cusp of half-time for a 28-6 lead.
The Dolphins flyer added his second after the break but Samoa held their own for the final hour of the match until Kangaroos centre Kotoni Staggs scored on full-time from a Daly Cherry-Evans kick.
Samoa will rue errors, a lethargic start to the game and lapses of concentration at the end of both halves but showcased enough quality for coach Ben Gardiner to believe an upset over New Zealand next week is possible.
Tamika Upton touches down at Queensland Country Bank Stadium. Photograph: Scott Radford-Chisholm/AAP
In the women’s Test earlier on Saturday, Upton was a constant threat and her speed and game sense proved the difference in a tight rugby league Pacific Championships opener.
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Kiwi Ferns fullback Api Nicholls had an outstanding game herself to limit Upton, who won the NRLW Dally M player of the year, and make several try-saving tackles. The Kiwi Ferns unleashed nine debutants and were a vastly-improved side to the one that lost the World Cup final by 54-4 to the Jillaroos late last year.
Jillaroos co-captain Ali Brigginshaw showcased sublime vision to dart out of dummy-half and find a flying Upton to open the scoring. It was shut the gate with the speedy custodian racing 40m untouched to score in the fifth minute. The Kiwi Ferns hit back with winger and NRLW Dally M rookie of the year Annessa Biddle snaffling a deft lobbed bomb by wily half Raecene McGregor to score out wide.
McGregor was masterful for most of the night and the Kiwi Ferns showed great resolve on both sides of the ball to keep the Jillaroos star-studded backline relatively quiet. The visitors muscled up on their tryline with resilience and it took barnstorming Jillaroos prop Caitlan Johnston to barge over with brute strength.
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Upton, who missed last year’s World Cup with a calf injury, then lit up proceedings with a try from a set play from a scrum where she drifted across field before accelerating through the defence to score with ease and give the hosts a 16-4 lead at halftime.
The Kiwi Ferns needed to be first to score after the break and blockbusting centre Mele Hufanga steamed onto the ball to leave five Jillaroos defenders in her wake to narrow the margin to just six. Hufanga was hard to handle all night on her way to making 171 running metres and 17 tackle busts.
It was Upton who had the most decisive influence, with here 214m, three line breaks and two crucial triesworld class.
Jillaroos winger Jaime Chapman was put on report for a hip-drop tackle on Biddle, who was herself placed on report for a lifting tackle on Brigginshaw and sin-binned with less than one minute remaining.