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Australia v New Zealand preview

Tony Webeck NRL.com Fri, May 02, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston are but two reasons the Kiwis will struggle to win their first mid-season Test since 1998. Copyright: Colin Whelan.

Australia v New Zealand
Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Friday, 7.30pm

In that parallel universe where rugby league Tests are decided on paper, this one doesn't end well for the New Zealanders.

As Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens has stuck solid with the men who won him a World Cup just six months ago, Kiwis mentor Stephen Kearney has stocked his side with players he thinks can be world champions in 2017.

The Kiwis boast half the amount of Test experience of their Aussie counterparts (264 games to 133) but the chasm between the two sides becomes more evident when you take Simon Mannering, Adam Blair, Jason Nightingale and Greg Eastwood out of the equation: The remaining 14 members of the New Zealand squad have played three more Tests combined than Kangaroos captain Cameron Smith (40-37).

With six debutants and just five remaining players from the side that contested November's World Cup Final, it's an extraordinary clean-out by Kearney who was reappointed as Kiwi coach in February for a further two years with an option for another two that would take him through to the next World Cup to be hosted in Australia and New Zealand.

With debutants in Peta Hiku, Isaac John, Ben Henry, Siliva Havili, Martin Taupau and Kenny Bromwich, Kearney certainly appears to be working towards a four-year plan, although injuries have also decimated his squad.

Hooker Issac Luke remains sidelined with a shoulder injury, Kieran Foran went down with a knee injury the week before the side was named and Frank Pritchard is nursing a torn pectoral muscle that will keep him off the field for the majority of the season. Jeremy Smith, Sam McKendry, Josh Hoffman and Jason Taumalolo were also unavailable but the omissions of Alex Glenn, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Ben Matulino, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Manu Vatuvei and Frank-Paul Nuuausala raised eyebrows on both sides of the Tasman.

The selection of John from the New South Wales Cup is a throwback to the mid-1980s when cult figure Olsen Filipaina was plucked from Balmain reserve grade to inspire his nation to victory (although it must be said Filipaina was a past great) while Willie Talau enjoyed the same ascension when chosen by then Kiwi coach Daniel Anderson in 2003.

The Kangaroos weren't without their own selection headaches with a shoulder injury ruling out Jarryd Hayne while Boyd Cordner and Nate Myles were preferred over Josh Papalii and Andrew Fifita. But while Sheens was able to cure his ills with a nice cup of tea and a lie down, Kearney was forced to wrestle with a Sonny Bill Williams-sized migraine before settling on his squad.

Footy's a funny game but it will take the greatest upset in 30 years of international rugby league for the Kiwis to topple their paper giants.

With a host of great ticket options and free entry for junior pass holders, there's no reason not to be there. Those wishing to use a junior pass for entry into the Test need to redeem a ticket at one of the box offices which will secure a spot in a Category 3 seating section.

Watch Out Kangaroos: It's a brave man who'd suggest that losing a winger seven minutes into a World Cup Final changed the course of the game but there's no doubt Kiwi winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will feel he has some unfinished Kangaroos business to attend to. Having been in doubt the entire week leading up to the final, RTS was cleared to play but then suffered a fractured leg and left the field with the scores locked at 2-all. He missed the Roosters' World Club Challenge win but coach Trent Robinson has been quick to utilise his extraordinary attacking skills to their greatest effect since. When the Roosters are in the opposition half Tuivasa-Sheck shifts to the fullback position in attack and this extra dimension to his game will be a godsend to Kearney on Friday night and into the future. In eight games so far in 2014 he has made four line breaks, scored three tries and provided two try assists and while he may start on the wing in just his third Test appearance, the Kangaroos should be ready to see those fast feet at any point on the field at any time of the game.

Watch Out Kiwis: Amidst the hysteria surrounding Daly Cherry-Evans's claims to a Test No.7 jersey there have been some who have been quick to overlook one important factor: Incumbent halves Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston have been in terrific form. Their respective teams have not had the start to 2014 many expected but the Storm No.7 and Cowboys five-eighth have lost none of the attacking spark that tore the Kiwis apart six months ago. Cronk sits alongside Brett Stewart for most try assists in the NRL with 11, Thurston hot on their heels with nine. Against Manly two weeks ago 'JT' laid on three tries in a masterful performance while Cronk boasts a try assist in each of the seven games he has played for the Storm this season. Cherry-Evans's claims are genuine but the Kiwis need to shut these two champions down before they go worrying about the next generation.

Plays To Watch: With such limited preparation – and with so many new faces in the Kiwi team – game plans will be kept to their most basic. With arguably the greatest hooker forward to have ever played the game facing off in the Test arena against a 22-year-old on Test debut, the biggest mismatch is in the most important part of the field.

When he runs out on Friday night for his 38th Test Cameron Smith will pass Clive Churchill to become the eighth most-capped Kangaroo of all time and should pass Johnny Raper, Reg Gasnier (both 39) and Brad Fittler (40) by the end of the year.

Going head-to-head with a part-time No.9 in Ben Henry, Smith will orchestrate a Kangaroo stampede through the middle of the ruck and then let his halves apply the polish.
The Kiwis' great strength lies in their outside backs but they will have to assert themselves up front before trying to get Tuivasa-Sheck, Dean Whare and Peta Hiku into space on the edges.

Where It Will Be Won: As mentioned previously, the experience and class of the Kangaroos in the middle of the ruck and in the halves are trump cards that the Kiwis appear to simply have no match for.

The combination of Smith, Cronk and Thurston has been dominant at international level for the past two years and they will punish any errors or opportunities that the Kiwis offer them.

Shaun Johnson will have inexperienced eyes looking at him for direction from both inside and out and as brilliantly talented as he is, that is far too great a load for a 23-year-old to bear.

The History: Played 126; Australia 94, New Zealand 29, drawn 3. When the Kiwis backed up their 2008 World Cup win with a shock upset of the Kangaroos in the final of the 2010 Four Nations tournament, the balance of power appeared to have shifted sufficiently to be at least approaching parity. 

But seven consecutive victories by the Australians has re-defined world rugby league's pecking order, culminating with the lopsided 34-2 World Cup triumph last November. There have been five meetings of these teams at Allianz Stadium and it's been a whitewash to the home side, including wins of 44-0, 48-6 and 30-6. The closest New Zealand have come to defeating Australia at Allianz came in the 2006 Tri-Nations Final when Darren Lockyer scored in extra time to earn his side a 16-12 win. In one of the most gripping Test matches ever played, the game only progressed to golden point when the video referee denied a try to Johnathan Thurston in the dying seconds.

Match Officials: Referee - Shayne Hayne; Touch Judges - Russell Turner & Anthony Elliott; Video Referees - Steve Clark & Henry Perenara. 

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld & NSW).

What Are The Odds: The Kangaroos opened at $1.12 with Sportsbet.com.au and have been backed into $1.08 with three times the money bet on them. The Kiwis have eased out to $7.50 from $6.40. The line is a massive -22.5 points ($1.90) and the punters are adamant it will be a bloodbath, with money five to one for Australia to cover the -22.5. 

The Way We See It: I'm old enough to remember the fighting spirit the Kiwis showed when they were cobbled together in the 1980s to terrorise 'big brother' but the game has come a long way since then and modern fairytales so often have unfulfilling conclusions.

Only the staunchest Kiwi with Speights running through their veins could possibly wager that their team will win on Friday night but when you give quality footballers the chance to elevate their game to another level and against all the odds, amazing things can happen.

There is an abundance of class in the Kiwi outside backs but getting them quality ball in good position on the park will be the greatest challenge they face against a hardened, well-drilled Kangaroos outfit. Australia by 18 points.