Five things we learned as Samoa upset England to make first ever Rugby League World Cup final
Stephen Crichton’s golden point field goal breaks hosts’ hearts after classic semi-final
By Josh Graham at Emirates Stadium
Stephen Crichton’s field goal in extra time broke English hearts and booked Samoa’s spot in their first ever Rugby League World Cup final against Australia.
Tim Lafai also crossed for two tries as the Pacific Islanders avenged their opening 60-6 defeat to the hosts in stunning style in North London.
Lafai and Ligi Sao went over either side of Elliott Whitehead’s score to give Matt Parish’s men a 10-6 lead at half-time.
Lafai added another after the break either side of two for Crichton as England made inroads through Tommy Makinson and Herbie Farnworth’s double.
Makinson’s conversion under enormous pressure sent the game to golden point and Crichton proved to be the matchwinner after sitting deep in the pocket to slot the one-pointer and stun the home crowd of 40,489.
Here’s five things we learned from Saturday afternoon at the Emirates.
No love lost for clubmates
Opposing centres but Salford Red Devils teammates Kallum Watkins and Tim Lafai were right at the heart of the action in the first quarter in North London.
It was England’s right edge that was so destructive in the 60-6 win over Samoa that kickstarted this tournament but that was where they were found lacking early on.
Lafai, who almost gave up the sport after losing his NRL contract in 2021 before being handed a lifeline by Salford, broke the deadlock by getting on the outside of his Super League teammate.
Watkins thought he had got one back over Lafai as England shifted the ball right and he dummied before seeming to go over but replays showed the Samoan had dislodged the ball and the try was chalked off.
Having played each other once already there was no lack of feeling between these two sides, and Victor Radley got in on the act with some friendly fire against his Sydney Roosters colleague Joseph Suaali’I as a flying shot with his left arm caught the Samoa full-back off balance after half an hour.
Watkins finally got some revenge over Lafai at the start of the second half as his tackle forced the Samoan to spill the ball on the line from George Williams’ kick, allowing John Bateman to pick up and score for the easiest of tries to give England the lead.
Lafai was not to be outdone, though, as again Samoa had joy down the left, England’s blitz defence nullified by Jarome Luai’s dancing feet with the centre the beneficiary of the overlap as the cameras panned to a furious Wane in the stands.
First half sets the tone
England could not have been more impressive in their first-half demolition of Papua New Guinea last weekend at the DW Stadium.
The Princess of Wales was in attendance for a blistering opening 40 that took the game well beyond the Kumuls and laid down a marker of intent at the venue where coach Wane presided over so many victories for Wigan Warriors.
However, things could not have been more different at the Emirates as England failed to hit their straps in the opening 40.
They were caught out too easily in defence on the right edge and the attack looked flat and devoid of shape and organisation far too regularly, forward Morgan Knowles even kicking the ball on the last right at the end of the half to underline that point.
Rugby league is a game of momentum and if teams come flying out of the blocks it is hard to reel them in, Australia showed it is possible to turn around a deficit at Elland Road on Friday night but more often than not it pays to lead from the front.
Four weeks is a long time in sport
So much had been made about the first encounter between these two sides but this England display bared so little resemblance to the rip-roaring performance that tore Samoa to shreds in Newcastle four weeks ago.
England warned people not to write off Samoa in the build-up and the star-studded Pacific Islanders backed up those words with an upset for the ages in front of the thousands of fans expecting to roar the hosts home.
Samoa came in undercooked for the first game but looked all the better for such a thorough workout in the narrow 20-18 quarter-final win over Tonga.
Conversely, Shaun Wane’s side had not been remotely tested on their way to the semi-finals, brushing aside Papua New Guinea 46-6 in their last-eight encounter and perhaps that lack of close game experience was their undoing.
Silky skills make for box office viewing
The ridiculous skills involved in Stephen Crichton’s first try were worth the entry fee alone in North London.
Luai’s dazzling footwork was a feature all afternoon and he sent his skipper Junior Paulo crashing towards the line but just when he appeared to have been felled short, somehow he hurled an outrageous offload over his head a millisecond before the tackle was complete.
Luai used his volleyball skills to bat it away to Crichton who had the simple task of sliding over unchallenged to reclaim the lead for his side.
While Samoa temporarily turned into the Harlem Globetrotters, England’s Herbie Farnworth showed phenomenal strength and perseverance to shake off six would-be tacklers and score a crucial try after showing his own skills to spin over the line, but that moment of brilliance will be of little consolation to him now.
Golden point fitting end to classic tie
Samoa had the first opportunity in golden point but Anthony Milford’s field goal attempt was brilliantly charged down by Elliott Whitehead.
Jack Welsby’s initial spill had afforded Samoa that foray forward and then Sam Tomkins’ forward pass from dummy half let the Pacific Islanders back in.
This time Crichton sat very deep in the pocket, bided his time and with one fateful swing of his left boot made history for the tiny nation of Samoa while simultaneously crushing England’s dream of winning the World Cup on home soil.
The Rugby League World Cup promises to be the biggest, best and most inclusive event in the sport’s 127-year history with men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams competing in 61 games across 21 venues throughout England. Tickets are available via rlwc2021.com/tickets