How good was that? The Rugby League World Cup semis that left us breathless

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 12: England captain Sam Tomkins reacts after his side lose out to a golden point drop goal defeat as the Samoa players celebrate during the Rugby League World Cup Semi-Final match between  England/Papua New Guinea and Tonga/Samoa at Emirates Stadium on November 12, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
England captain Sam Tomkins is devastated after Samoa's golden point win in the Rugby League World Cup semi-final in London (Getty Images for RLWC 2021)

By James Toney

And breathe, for a few days at least. Immovable objects met irresistible force in two men's Rugby League World Cup semi-finals for the ages.

Australia's two-point win over New Zealand in a blood and thunder instant classic at Elland Road was as good as the sport - indeed any sport - gets.

And less than 24 hours later, improbably and implausibly, the second semi-final - in front of a rocking 40,489 at the Emirates - saw that drama and raised it.

For almost 80 minutes Samoa's blue wall stood resolute, until England's Herbie Farnworth's try forced extra-time.

And then home hearts were broken as Stephen Crichton threaded a precision drop goal to send his side into their first World Cup final.

There were tongue in cheek calls to send Samoa home after their 60-6 humbling at England's hands in the tournament opener in Newcastle.

Now they are going all the way after writing one of sport's greatest comeback stories. What's that quote about the last laugh?

All roads now lead to Old Trafford, as the Kangaroos, unbeaten in a record 17 consecutive matches at the tournament, await.

The pandemic had starved us of international rugby league but how we've feasted to bursting point in the last week.

Little did we know that the Kiwis' fraught win over Fiji in the quarter-finals, followed by Samoa edging their Polynesian feud with Tonga in Warrington one day later, were actually just palate cleansers.

Surely it couldn't get better and yet...

It'll be a tough watch for England's Shaun Wane and New Zealand's Michael Maguire, as they reflect on the fractional moments that went against them in London and Leeds.

It wouldn't take too much tweaking of history for two completely different teams to be lining-up in Manchester next Saturday.

What if Dominic Young had not dropped that high ball or Victor Radley thrown that interception?

Kiwi captain Jesse Bromwich said he had no intention of watching back his semi-final and you couldn't really blame him. The drama is less dramatic when you know the ending.

"[There were] a couple of moments we would like back but it’s all done now," he said.

Mal Meninga and Matt Parish both expect to be at full strength for the final, influential Samoa captain Junior Paulo not charged by the match review committee for his challenge on Tom Burgess.

Meninga's team has marched through their first five matches, perhaps only dropping their level for the second half of their quarter-final win over Lebanon, though that game had already been iced.

After every game his mantra has been the same - we can get better, an ominous statement of intent.

"I think we can be better because of that game against New Zealand," he said. "We can learn from that but that’s what playing for your country produces – games like that where you’ve got to find that little bit extra in the way you play, or in your effort levels to get that victory."

Parish also knows his team will need to improve and will play the underdog card for all his worth this week. The chips are stacked against him and you rather feel that's just how he likes it.

These teams have played three times and Australia lead the head-to-head 3-0, with 154 points scored and just ten conceded.

But sometimes big tournaments are about fate. Written off a month ago, Samoa are certainly battle-hardened after bruising battles against Tonga and England to book their final slot.

“We have had our critics and a few things have gone against us," he said. "Five guys have gone home and we are down to the bare bones. To put Samoa in the World Cup final, the tiny little dot in the middle of the pacific is just incredible.

“We are obviously going against a world class team next week but they have got belief in what we are all about."

The scriptures tell us that a little faith goes a long way ... and Samoa can just about glimpse the promised land.

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