Australia wrapped up their pool matches at the Rugby League World Cup with a dominant 66-6 win over minnows Italy at Totally Wicked Stadium in St Helens.
While it was a comfortable win, it would not be a victory that would fill the Australia coach, Mal Meninga, with any real confidence, with ball handling and a lack of cohesion in attack the biggest worries. Australia mixed some individual brilliance with some periods of clunkiness that will need some resolution as the Kangaroos enter the knockout stages.
Meninga pulled a selection surprise by naming both Nathan Cleary and Daly Cherry-Evans to start in what would essentially be a shootout for the No 7 jersey during the knockout stages.
Cherry-Evans fired the first shot in the eighth minute with a deft crossfield kick for Valentine Holmes to open Australia’s scoring tally and then Cleary did himself no favours with arguably the worst conversion attempt of his career, missing from next to the posts. Both played the full 80 minutes but neither laid an undeniable claim to start at halfback in the matches that matter.
It was a disappointing game for Cleary, who was clearly feeling the heat of the selection battle. A no-look, over-the-head rocket with Australia camped on the Italian line could not have been a play less associated with the methodical, at times robotic Cleary. Cherry-Evans was a more reliable proposition but seemed to play a secondary role to Cleary.
The Azzurri certainly showed no fear early, attempting shifts from deep in their own half and tackling with plenty of heart, but the Kangaroos soon wrested full control with Murray Taulagi scoring his first try in Australian colours in the 11th minute on the back of a sweeping backline move.
Kangaroos skipper James Tedesco, who played in the blue of Italy the last time the World Cup was held in the north of England nine years ago, scored in the 19th minute after Australia had virtually five straight sets. Winger Campbell Graham scored 10 minutes later, grabbing an Italian short drop-out and crossing untouched. Australia then scored twice in the final four minutes of the half, first through a hard-running Latrell Mitchell and then Taulagi scored his second on the back of a sublime Mitchell flick.
While Australia went into half-time with a 30-0 lead, it was a scrappy performance more reminiscent of the Fiji win than the relentless Scotland demolition. Jeremiah Nanai spilled a ball early on, Ben Hunt turned the ball over through a kick on the first tackle, Mitchell knocked it on in his own half and Tedesco spilled a certain try.
The clunkiness continued early in the second half before Tedesco declared enough was enough when he dummied and put the rocket propulsion into full effect when breaking the line and passing inside to Cherry-Evans with the Dubbo-born Isaah Yeo backing up for his second Test try.
A scare went through the Kangaroos camp when Italian players waved to the sideline following a tackle on James Tedesco. The skipper shook off the leg knock but quickly departed the field and went straight to the dressing room. While first indications are Tedesco did not suffer a serious injury, his fitness will be sweated on over the coming days.
The biggest cheer of the match came for Italian Ronny Palumbo. After Italy recovered the ball from a short kick following a Liam Martin try, Palumbo was first to a Radean Robinson grubber to score a memorable four-pointer.
In Australia’s slickest moment of the game Cameron Murray scored a delightful try after some smooth passing from Yeo and then Tino Fa’asuamaleaui.
Yeo was placed on report soon after though and will be hoping to avoid suspension as he pushes for a spot in Australia’s quarter-final clash next week.
The Kangaroos finished off their comfortable win with tries by Graham, Nanai and Lindsay Collins against a tired-yet-courageous Italy who did their country proud.
Australia will most likely play Lebanon in the quarter-finals next week while Italy leave the World Cup proud after a win against Scotland and a tough showing against the Kangaroos.