In easily their toughest match of the tournament, the Australians were pushed to the limit by a gallant Pacific Islands team in a match worthy of a Final – before finally clinching a third straight Universities World Cup in the last 20 minutes to bring the 2017 Festival of World Cups to a fitting finale.
After both sides showed nerves in the early stages, the Islanders were able to work field position in the 12th minute for giant centre John Faiumu to burst through four defenders down the right hand blind side to score the opening try. Robert Vai converted for a 6-nil Pacific Islands lead.
The Australians’ attack did not show the same sharpness than they did earlier in the for nearly the rest of the first half – as the defending champions continued to be bustled into nervous errors by the solid Pacific Islands defence.
Finally, with five minutes to play in the first half, the Australians held on to the ball for long enough to work a left side shift for fullback Jarrod Lee to score in the corner. Mick O’Keefe missed the conversion from near touch to leave the Pacific Islands with a 6-4 lead at the break.
The Pacific Islands extended their lead four minutes into the second half when an Australian cross field kick on the last tackle from inside their own half was not cleanly picked up – allowing Islanders winger Marli Sini to swoop on the loose ball, step back inside the backpedalling Australian defence and score a neat opportunist’s try.
Vai’s conversion from wide out gave the Pacific Islands a handy 12-4 lead – allowing the large amount of passionate Pacific Islanders’ supporters in the good sized crowd to dream of a World Cup win against the odds.
After the Australians were able to work field position in the back of Pacific Islands turnovers and a run of penalties from referee Darian Furner, star centre Jamie Anderson got on the outside of his man down the right eight minutes into the second half – before bursting through three defenders to score a determined solo try to get the defending champions back into game.
O’Keefe landed the conversion from wide out to narrow the Pacific Islands lead to 12-10.
As the Islanders’ continued to be starved of possession through the middle of the second half, the Australians slowly ground their way on top.
From a repeat set after forcing a goal line drop out in the 54th minute, a grubber kick on the last tackle by Australian five-eighth Mackenzie Reid bounced off the upright into the hands of half back Ryan Cameron who scored next to the posts to give the host nation the lead for the first time at 16-12 after O’Keefe added the extras.
After the Pacific Islands put the restart kickoff out on the full, the Australians then upped the ante against the Islanders’ defence – putting on a shift through the hands down the left for centre Mick Pearsall to score his first try near the corner. O’Keefe nailed the conversion from near touch to give the Australians a 22-12 lead.
The Islanders’ frustrations of being starved of possession in the second half from turnovers and penalties took its toll with 12 minutes left when half back Jesse Domic was sin binned for 10 minutes by referee Furner for dissent.
Against a tiring 12 man Islanders’ defence, the Australians then went in for the kill. From the ensuing penalty, a sweeping backline movement left found speedster David Sheridan who dived over in the corner to wrap up the Aussies’ sixth World Cup title at 26-12 inside the last 10 minutes.
After both sides had chances in the closing stages, Pearsall put the icing on the cake with his second try in the final minute to close out the 30-12 Australian triumph.
Pearsall was delighted to be a part of the Australian win – and was quick to acknowledge how tough the Final was for the newly crowned champions.
“We hadn’t been in an arm wrestle all tournament. It’s just nice to know that when the going got tough, the boys were able to pull through and play good footy”, Pearsall stated.
The classy centre also put the triumph in the Final as a highlight of his rugby league career as he reflected on his own journey – via the Ron Massey Cup in NSW and the Intrust Super Cup Queensland – into being a World Cup champion.
“That good year back at Asquith in the run to the (2015 Ron Massey Cup) Grand Final is definately up there. Then I flew the nest - and it’s been a tough couple of years to be honest. So coming back and playing footy with a bunch of boys who enjoy it afterwards – it’s what it’s all about. It makes you love footy again”, Pearsall said.
Australian coach Aaron Zimmerle pointed to his side’s second half performance and team spirit as the keys to their eventual victory in the decider.
“I thought we finished the game the way we should have – where we played some of our best football in the last 20 minutes. Our comments (at half time) towards a game like this – where we know the opposition are physically very strong and talented – was to drown them with our possession,” Zimmerle told RLWC2017.com after fulltime.
“So that meant that we were to continually have more ball than them. So we made the goal not to chase points - just outpossess them. The other thing we highlighted was that energy and extra effort was inj how hard you pushed for your (team)mate. And in the last 20 seconds, we scored a try because we had people showing up (for their mates). And that was probably the biggest difference – that they worked that little bit harder for each other”, Zimmerle said.
Zimmerle also called for Australia to use their status as champions for the greater international good moving forward.
“It’s all very well beating sides – as we should as Australia is a powerhouse of rugby league. But it would be good to use that (status) to help coaching and development in places like Ireland, like Wales, like the Pacific Islands between now and the next (Universities) World Cup. Otherwise, the other sides will be scrambling like they did this time”, Zimmerle concluded.
Pacific Islands coach Tony Puletua could only reflect on what might have been for his charges in their luckless second half – but did so with pride in his side’s fairytale run to a Final that looked impossible when called upon to replace New Zealand on the eve of the tournament.
“I’m still so proud of the effort they put in. I felt that we had a few tough calls against us through that game – and throughout the second half, too. We couldn’t really catch a break there – but I’m super proud of the boys. I’m proud of their efforts and they need to hold their heads up (high),” Puletua expained.
With a view to the future after adding such excitement to the Festival of World Cups, the 2003 NRL Premiership winner would certainly consider giving his guidance in future tournaments – especially with a longer preparation.
“We did this on the back of three and half weeks preparation to bring these guys together and gel them as a team. It’s hard to that that in any competition. We weren’t given much in this tournament – but we just got on with it and I am proud of the boys that we got here (to the Final),” Puletua said.
“This has certainly sparked something in me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it’s been a great journey. We’ll see what happens in the future”, Puletua concluded.
Australian Universities 30 (Mick Pearsall 2, Jarrod Lee, Jamie Anderson, Ryan Cameron, David Sheridan tries; Mick O’Keefe 3 goals) def. Pacific Islands Universities 12 (John Faiumu, Marli Sini tries, Robert Vai 2 goals) at Pepper Stadium, Penrith. Referee: Darian Furner (New South Wales/Australia). Touch Judges: Tian Nicholls, Ethan Mitcham. In-Goal Judges: Wyatt Raymond, Jack Evatt. Half-Time: Pacific Islands Universities 6-4.