By Brian Lowe
Off-field player shenanigans did not have any influence on match outcomes in round two of the Rugby League World Cup, but they were still on fans' minds this week.
The story that captured the most headlines involved Italian teammates James Tedesco and Shannon Wakeman, when the latter allegedly punched the former at a bar because he thought Tedesco was flirting with his girlfriend.
However, the pair later waived it off saying there was nothing in it and then teamed up Sunday as the Azzuri shut out the USA 46-0 in a Pool D contest in the northern Australian city of Townsville.
REPLAY: Italy vs. USA — Available in Canada, Uruguay, Chile, and Asia (outside of Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Japan)
Elsewhere, Scotland has sent three players packing for misconduct, including captain Danny Brough. The trio of Scots — including one named Johnny Walker, and no, that’s not a joke — were reportedly too drunk to board a plane in New Zealand.
And France hooker Eloi Pelissier has also been sent home for breaking team curfew after Les Chanticleers’ first-round loss to Lebanon in the Australian capital Canberra.
All the off-field distractions aside, round two produced some memorable moments, and none more so than the pre-game rituals before the All-Pacific showdown between rivals Tonga and Samoa on Saturday at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton, New Zealand.
In what can best be described as a stunning display of cultural heritage and passion, both teams performed their traditional war dances simultaneously while facing each other. Both then finished by applauding the other to show their appreciation.
The match finished with all players praying together in a circle after Tonga had muscled through for a 32-18 victory to stay unbeaten.
Still in the shaky isles, New Zealand poleaxed the Scots 74-6 in the other Pool B matchup in Christchurch, with Kiwi halfback Shaun Johnson scoring 22 points to become the all-time leading points scorer for his country.
Roos On The Hop
The round kicked off Friday night in Canberra, where Australia used home-field advantage to blast France 52-6 in Pool A. Kangaroos back-rower Wade Graham was the star of the show, notching four tries to equal an Australian record set by Gorden Tallis back in 2000.
Despite the home team taking the spoils, it was French fullback Mark Kheirallah who made the highlight reel by scoring the most scintillating try of the night when he scooped up a loose ball near his own line and ran the length of the field to score France’s only try.
England Iffy, PNG Rolls, Wales Wilts
The other Pool A heavyweight England posted a 29-10 win against Lebanon, but the Lions struggled to find their rhythm and didn’t really impress. Even their head coach, Wayne Bennett, said they need to do better.
England winger Jermaine McGillvary has to answer a biting charge before round three after Lebanese skipper Robbie Farah alleged he was bitten in a tackle.
Papua New Guinea again thrilled its home crowd in Port Moresby, although the team was severely tested by a gritty Ireland in a Pool C matchup Sunday.
The Kumuls hung on for a 14-6 triumph but had to wait for a 78th-minute try by Watson Boas to seal the deal.
In Pool D, Fiji thrashed Wales 72-6 in Townsville to wrap up the round. The Hayne Plane scored again to move into the outright lead with most World Cup tries at 14.
So, as we move into the final pool stage, several countries have already stitched up places in the quarterfinals.
Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, PNG, and Fiji are all assured of making the playoffs, while England, Ireland, Lebanon, and Italy are on the cusp.
The rest, including the United States, Samoa, Wales, France, and Scotland, all need a win and a prayer if they’re to have any chance of progressing. All of them have awful points differentials which will make it tougher to qualify even if they do post third-round victories.
Aside from the games themselves, though, a couple of trends have emerged over the first two weeks of #RLWC2017. There have been sellout crowds at grounds in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, but fan numbers have been disappointing at matches in Australia.
The flip side is that TV audiences in Australia have been better than expected — an example being the Australia-France game drawing more than 2 million viewers.
Round 2 results:
Australia 52, France 6
New Zealand 74, Scotland 6
Tonga 32, Samoa 18
England 29, Lebanon 10
PNG 14, Ireland 6
Italy 46, USA 0
Fiji 72, Wales 6