New Zealand overcame a spirited Lebanon 34-12 but there were crowds for concern at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
A Joseph Manu-inspired 16-point blitz in six second half minutes tempered any threat of an upset after the Cedars started both halves strongly, led by Adam Doueihi who was sent off for dissent on the hour.
But the 5,453 attendance was a stark contrast to the opening Sunday of the last World Cup on these shores, when Sonny Bill Williams’ New Zealand beat Samoa in front of 13,965.
It raises questions over the pricing strategy for the World Cup, with organisers insistent they will not be discounting prices that some fans are saying are too expensive.
After a fifth one-sided game out of five in the tournament so far, shifting more tickets at the available price points for the remainder of the group games could be a challenge.
Despite going down by six tries to two, Lebanon provided a similarly spirited opening quarter to what Fiji managed against the mighty Australia the previous night at Headingley.
They set their stall out from the kick-off, Adam Doueihi going with an unusual high, short kick-off that they recovered the ball from. It led to the game’s opening try inside two minutes. Parramatta half-back Mitchell Moses’ grubber kick caused problems for the Kiwi defence and as Brandon Morkos fielded the ball and powered towards the line, the ball came loose and was eventually touched down in goal by Josh Mansour. It was referred upstairs to the video referee, who was happy that the ball had come out via a strip in the tackle and Lebanon took the lead.
There was an element of doubt too about New Zealand’s first try. Kenny Bromwich took on a pass following Joseph Manu’s offload and bounced over the line, with the video referee happy that momentum, rather than a double movement, had taken him to the whitewash, Jordan Rapana’s conversion levelling things up at 6-all.
Lebanon recovered the ball from the kick-off again, though failed to put any pressure on the Kiwi’s try line and eventually the game’s favourites started to wrestle control of the contest.
It took until 25 minutes for their pressure to turn in to points, Nelson Asofa-Solomona powering over from close range.
Then on his former stomping ground, ex-Warrington centre dummied from the play the ball and crossed on the right edge to give his side an 18-6 half-time lead.
Expectations of a second half procession were halted by Lebanon’s performance in the first 15 minutes of the second half, when they pulled a try back. Doueihi’s 40/20 laid the platform for a last tackle play where his long pass created space for Wigan winger Abbas Miski to touch down in the corner.
But any hope of the underdog coming out on top was extinguished five minutes either side of the hour mark.
After Lebanon went agonisingly close to levelling the scores, when Jacob Kiraz was held up inches short of the line after taking Miski’s inside kick, the Kiwis showed their class.
Joseph Manu broke through the middle and found Dylan Brown on his left shoulder for their fourth try. Manu would then take control of the game and provide a 10 minute masterclass. He gathered his own chip kick through to touch down and stretch the score to 30-12.
From the resulting short kick-off, Doueihi was sent off by referee Grant Atkins, and off the back of that penalty, the Kiwis made the most of their man advantage with Manu putting Jordan Rapana over in the right corner.
That 16 point blitz in six minutes proved to be enough, with Lebanon’s attention now turning to a likely pivotal group clash with Ireland at Leigh next weekend.
FT: New Zealand 34-12 Lebanon
New Zealand: Manu, Rapana, Hiku, Nicoll-Klokstad, Mulitalo, Brown, Foran, J Bromwich, Smith, Fisher-Harris, Papali’i, K Bromwich, Tapine. Subs: Niukore, Asofa-Solomona, Nikora, Marshall-King.
Tries: K Bromwich, Asofa-Solomona, Hiku, Brown, Manu, Rapana. Goals: Rapana 5/6
Lebanon: Kiraz, Mansour, Morkos, Robinson, Miski, Doueihi, Moses, Kalache, Kazzi, Rahme, El-Zakhem, Tasipale, Roumanos. Subs: Tannous, Maree, El-Nachar, Bazzaz.
Tries: Mansour, Miski. Goals: Moses 2.