England v New Zealand
KC Stadium, Hull
Sunday, 4am AEST

With Australia already having fulfilled expectations on the way to qualifying for the Four Nations final and Wales essentially making up the numbers, this is the clash that many fans have been looking forward to – the chance for New Zealand to flex their international muscle or England to prove that they are indeed a world power.

While the Kiwis have toppled Australia from their perch in recent years to claim both the World Cup and Four Nations crowns, truth be told there is little separating these two sides in 2011 following England’s decision to recruit the likes of Chris Heighington and Jack Reed from the NRL. 

And if anything, the hosts have looked the better side over the past few weeks with New Zealand having lost consecutive games to Australia and failing to pile on as many points as expected in accounting for Wales 36-0 last Saturday.

Certainly luck didn’t do England any favours against the Kangaroos with Tom Briscoe denied a fair try that could have narrowed the gap to just four points with 32 minutes remaining. Instead, it was Australia that scored next to all but secure victory.

There is no doubt that the dour, grinding style of football that once typified British rugby league is a thing of the past, with Brisbane Broncos centre Reed, fullback Sam Tomkins and winger Ryan Hall all providing some scintillating attack over the past fortnight.

They also boast a fearsome forward pack, with Heighington lining up alongside Wests Tigers team-mate Gareth Ellis, former Roosters enforcer Adrian Morley and Bulldogs-bound James Graham.

New Zealand head into this do-or-die clash minus prop Sam McKendry who had his jaw broken by Welsh forward Craig Kopczak last week. A decision on his replacement will be made closer to kick-off, with Russell Packer likely to be recalled.

Also returning after enjoying a well-earned rest last week will be back-rower Simon Mannering and hooker Issac Luke, with the Kiwis hoping to continue their tradition of playing their best football as each tournament progresses.

Notably, England won this clash two years ago 20-12 when the Four Nations was last played on their home soil.

Watch Out England: As always, it will be New Zealand’s little men who threaten to tear England’s defence apart. And no side boasts as much speed around the rucks as New Zealand. If the likes of Ben Matulino, Fuifui Moimoi, Sika Manu and Adam Blair can get their side rolling forward, the space will open up for Kevin Locke, Benji Marshall, Issac Luke and Nathan Fien to run riot through the middle. 

Crucially, Marshall produced his best football of the campaign last week, having a hand in all five of the Kiwis’ first-half tries, while Locke has continued on from his impressive 2011 season with the Warriors to add plenty of spark from the back. It is imperative England dominate in the tackle because they will find themselves on the back foot if they don’t.

Watch Out Kiwis: New Zealand boast an intimidating forward pack but those same big men will need to be on their toes to repel the ever-present threat posed by England fullback Sam Tomkins. The 22-year-old has been in scintillating form so far in this year’s Four Nations – the slippery speedster showing off superb support play and a unique ability to slip out of the tackle. He scored four tries and ran for 130 metres against Wales, then set up a scintillating try against Australia in which he sliced through two defenders and threw a remarkable flick pass for Ryan Hall to score.

Plays To Watch: A favourite play of Benji Marshall’s is the quick short-side dash from dummy-half. Although he typically plants himself one or two off the ruck, Marshall will occasionally duck into dummy-half following a quick play-the-ball out wide and when the opportunity arises he will inevitably head to the blind side. He set up a brilliant try for Wests Tigers and Australian centre Chris Lawrence when the Tigers beat Manly in Round 21 this year and did it again last weekend against Wales – his well-timed pass putting Alex Glenn through a gap for Gerard Beale to score. Marshall has a particular fondness for this play down the left edge so England’s right-side pairing of Jack Reed and Ryan Hall will need to be awake to the possibility.

The History: Played 7; New Zealand 4, England 2, drawn 1. With England having often competed alongside the other British nations as Great Britain, they have only ever faced the Kiwis in full internationals on seven separate occasions and there isn’t a great deal between them with New Zealand leading the head to head 4-2. Interestingly they are one apiece in Four Nations battles and England will be boosted by the knowledge that they won their last battle on English soil in this same encounter two years ago. Their biggest ever win over New Zealand was some 36 years ago with a 27-12 result in Bradford. The Kiwis thrashed England 49-6 in the 2000 World Cup.

Last Time They Met: New Zealand scored a comfortable 24-10 win in their Four Nations opener in Wellington last year. Showing off the dazzling ball skills that are a feature of his game, Benji Marshall inspired an early rout as the Kiwis jumped to an 18-0 lead. England responded well with tries to James Roby and Gareth Widdop within two minutes, closing the gap to eight, but a solo effort from Marshall shortly afterwards sealed the deal.

Conclusion: This promises to be the most fiercely fought contest of this year’s Four Nations. New Zealand’s impressive record at the back end of major tournaments will ensure they boast slight favouritism, however on current form it may well be England that holds an edge. The hosts historically perform far better on home soil, were more impressive than the Kiwis in disposing of minnows Wales and but for some bad luck against Australia could have caused a major upset at Wembley last week. 

The battle of the backs is a mouth-watering prospect, with Marshall and Locke the danger-men in the Kiwis’ line-up, while Sam Tomkins and Jack Reed promise to pose plenty of questions for the home side. This should go down to the wire.

Match Officials: Referee – Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – James Child & Shane Rehm; Video Referee – Ian Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Delayed, Monday, 3am. 

Statistics: NRL Stats