Manu Vatuvei’s second half hat-trick of tries saved the World Cup-holders from potential embarrassment after they clocked off too early, thinking their job was done.
Cruising at 36-4 and showing why it will be hard to wrest the trophy from them in this tournament, the Kiwis were hit by a Samoan backlash. They narrowed the gap to 12 points with a near capacity Warrington crowd firmly behind them – and would have been closer if Anthony Milford had kicked his goals – before Vatuvei made it safe. The fightback had the Samoan coach, Matt Parish, saying: “We were down to 13 men and I was proud of them.”
Such is the robust reputation that Samoa bring with them that everyone always expects World War III.
Last night’s match was full of players who could qualify for either side; the phrase “too close for comfort” sprang to mind. After the first ten minutes it was rather a one-sided war. In that opening period, Samoa looked well capable being troublesome, with Daniel Vidot tackled into touch just short of the flag and Sia Soliola also going close.
When the Kiwis cut loose, however, they were devastating, with four tries in 11 minutes as good as winning the game. Josh Hoffman began the romp, capitalising on a break by Dean Whare. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck then set up Simon Mannering for his first with an electric burst down the right wing. Tuivasa-Sheck got one of his own and Mannering his second as the Kiwis threatened to run riot.
Ben Roberts put Samoa on the scoreboard just before half-time, but the second half saw another purple patch from the men in black, with three more tries in ten minutes. Seeing that New Zealand are England’s likely semi-final opponents, it was daunting stuff.
But it also ignited the fire in Samoa’s bellies, as they surged back with four tries in swift succession. An extraordinary game seemed to have been settled in a fitting manner when the generally quiet Sonny Bill Williams waltzed through the defence, only to fall over on the dead-ball line to general hilarity, leaving Vatuvei instead to apply the coup de grace.
In Sunday’s earlier game Papua New Guinea fullback David Mead missed a late penalty in front of the posts in Hull to allow France to escape with a 9-8 victory.
Standoff Thomas Bosc burrowed under two defenders to score for France in the fifth minute, then converted his try. Winger Nene McDonald replied for Papua New Guinea on his debut in the 17th. Josiah Abavu’s first try for PNG put them in front two minutes into the new half, but it was their only points. Bosc kicked a penalty in the 60th to tie the score, and William Barthau hit a drop goal four minutes later to regain an unassailable lead.