It was a battle between science and magic at Old Trafford and in the end, hard facts won the day over destiny.
Australia have claimed yet another World Cup title, downing Samoa 30-10 in a game that was less about the destination than the journey.
Magical is the only way to describe what’s happened to Samoa these past few weeks.
The team’s resurrection and the way Pasifika communities all over the world have gotten behind their boys is something that won’t be forgotten for as long as rugby league is played.
Samoa’s run through this tournament has made it feel bigger, more colourful and more important. They are the prime reason 67,502 fans packed into Manchester’s famous stadium and stood transfixed as the island nation launched into an especially fearsome Siva Tau.
At the sight of Brian To’o and Cameron Munster staring each other down like they’d spent their entire lives waiting for this game and this moment at this place at this time it felt as though it really could happen, that tiny Samoa could win the World Cup against all the odds.
In the opening stages, that feeling stayed alive. Samoa attacked with great confidence, offloading well and putting Australia under heavy pressure.
But it was the Kangaroos who scored first when Latrell Mitchell barrelled through one defender off a Nathan Cleary pass and got the better of a titanic collision with Joseph Suaalii to touch down.
Australia are just as passionate about the green and gold jersey as Samoa are for the blue. That’s plain to see when Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr screamed with joy right in each other’s faces after that opening score.
And the Kangaroos do have the deep qualities of a champion, the true grit that shows up when the heat is on and you really, really need it.
But they also have the best players in the world at almost every position and when you have that kind of talent all stacked together, all the flags and songs and spirit in the world isn’t enough. The margin for error is so thin it’s barely visible at all.
All it takes is one or two moments of fatigue, like when Oregon Kaufusi didn’t get back onside in the middle of the field, for Josh Addo-Carr to race away and put James Tedesco in under the posts or when Martin Taupau was caught on the ground and Harry Grant put Liam Martin in down the blindside, and all of a sudden it’s 14-0 and the hope from before the match is just a memory.
While we’re talking cold, hard facts, here’s another one – Samoa, for all they have done and all they have become, needed a bit of luck to win this game. Not a lot, but at least a little.
You can’t control luck, which is what makes it so hard when you need it but don’t get it.
In the opening minutes, Chanel Harris-Tavita put in a great clearing kick that nearly went out for a 40/20 but was kept in by James Tedesco. Replays clearly showed he had a foot on the line.
Would an early try have rattled the Kangaroos, fired up the staunchly pro-Samoan crowd and put the hint of an upset in the air? Maybe. But we can’t know. That’s bad luck.
Harris-Tavita copping an elbow from Angus Crichton and missing the final 30 minutes, forcing an already injury-depleted Samoa into playing the last stages of the match with a line-up where positions were more of an idea than anything real or tangible.
Check the tape, but it’s possible that Junior Paulo was forced into playing a halfback-like role at one stage. As brave as Samoa have been, eventually you run out of troops. That’s more bad luck.
So while the odds were already against Samoa, it seemed like the fates were as well. To their credit, they never shirked the challenge ahead of them even as it mounted.
This was not a team who was just happy to be there and Brian To’o’s second-half try was a reward for their perseverance and spirit. It’s the first try against Australia in a World Cup final since 2008 and that means something.
A second try followed when Stephen Crichton picked off a Ben Hunt pass late — because it’s not a big game of footy until Stephen Crichton scores an intercept try — and Samoa can walk away from Manchester with their pride intact.
But on the whole, Australia were too clinical, too sharp, too dynamic all across the park, too capable of bearing the weight of their own mistakes and, if you want to cut a long story short, too good.
After all the talk about who would play halfback, Nathan Cleary played his best game of the tournament on the biggest stage. He finally looked comfortable alongside Cameron Munster and played as if this Australian side was his to lead around – which, as the top playmaker, it absolutely is.
Tedesco was also superb in all his usual ways. The Roosters custodian was busy out of his own end and dangerous whenever the Kangaroos had a shot at the Samoan line, scoring two slashing tries.
After all he has done, it’s easy for us to take Tedesco for granted and the player of the match award in a World Cup final is an apt reminder that he has taken up the mantle vacated by the likes of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston as the greatest player of his time.
Australia deserve this win and all the plaudits that come their way. But this shouldn’t be the end of something, it should be a new beginning.
This World Cup, like the previous three editions, has given the international game a real boost and in the rise of Samoa the sport has been blessed with something very special.
The flame that has lit must be fanned and fed and allowed to turn into a roaring blaze. It didn’t happen after 2017, when Tonga had a similar emergence, because of the pandemic. Now there’s another chance for a new day.
A crowd of nearly 70,000 watching Samoa play Australia in Manchester is proof these games are viable almost anywhere in the world. This is a product people want to buy if only rugby league is willing to sell it.
So, Samoa shouldn’t go gently into that good night; they should play Tonga or New Zealand or England next year and again the year after that.
Maybe the next time they play Australia there’s a few less injuries, a few more bounces go their way and then who knows what might happen? They aren’t far off and they can still get better.
And the magic that made this such a special night still exists in Samoa. From the looks of things, it always will and it means they, and everybody else, needs a chance to see how far it can go, how high they can rise and just how good international rugby league can be.
Get more science in there to back up the magic. Put plans in place for Samoa to play again and add something for Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea while you’re at it.
The best time to plan for the future is yesterday. The second-best time is right now. This sport is sitting on a winning lottery ticket. It’s time to cash it in.
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