With the Gillette Four Nations series kicking off this Friday, former New Zealand international Nigel Vagana looks at what the Kiwis need to do to kick-start their tournament in the best way.
Turning things around in Warrington
Last weekend's match at Newcastle was always going to be a danger game for the Kiwis: a fired-up Kangaroos side wanting to win in Darren Lockyer's final game in Australia, an inexperienced New Zealand line up, and a large fanatical home crowd in one of the true rugby league heartlands. It was always going to be hard, and outside of the amazing late run by the Warriors to reach the NRL Grand Final, you would have expected all the hype to be behind the home team before kickoff.
We all saw what happened, and to be honest it wasn't a massive surprise... Newcastle has always been an intimidating ground to play at. I remember one Test back in 2004 when we played the Aussies there mid-year, and due to an injury in the squad I was pushed to fullback. Let's just say it wasn't a fond Test to remember as the crowd gave it to me and I dropped almost every bomb sent my way.
The perfect conditions for the recent clash just worked in the home team's favour. Australia has always loved to play a fast, expansive game, and in dry sunny conditions it was the perfect opportunity for the 'Roos to show off their back three of Uate, Boyd and Slater and try to exploit a Kiwis side with plenty of inexperienced players at Test level.
The one positive from a New Zealand perspective from the lopsided result is that the Kiwis have the chance to redeem themselves this Friday. Each of the players in the Kiwis side is more than capable of matching it with the Australians, but it just wasn't their day two weeks ago. They will all be wiser from the experience. Added to that, with greasy conditions predicted at Warrington, the teams will naturally be brought closer together as expansive play for both teams becomes limited. It's a factor that will allow the Kiwis to play their style of game – physical, straight and hard.
As I've seen and experienced with Kiwi teams over the years, the longer we're in the arm wrestle, the more physical we become, which puts us in a position to challenge the result.
'Beast' loss a burden
It's unfortunate that my old roomy Manu Vatuvei is unavailable for this year's Four Nations, as he is to the Kiwis what Billy Slater is to the Australians when it comes to kick returns.
Vatuvei's strong kick returns have always helped put the Kiwis on the front foot through an aggressive straight challenge into the defenders. Through his size, Manu is able to provide players like Jason Nightingale, Sam Perrett, Lance Hohaia or Kevin Locke quick play-the-balls, which they can take advantage of on play two with their speed and elusive nature to 'scoot' around the markers. This gains valuable metres before a larger centre, such as a Shaun Kenny Dowall, Junior Sau or a Steve Matai, gets involved in tackle three.
The loss of these larger centres for the Kiwis in this year's Four Nations only compounds the loss of Manu and highlights how valuable he is for the team. There is a reason why when Manu is on song both the Warriors and Kiwis fans sing loud and proud!
Tournaments work best for NZ
From what I've seen through my own experiences with New Zealand internationals, the longer Kiwi teams can train and play together, the better the side gels.
Unlike the Australians, who can pick the framework of their team from one of the State of Origin sides, or a leading NRL club team, the Kiwis have never had that luxury. All the best teams have a settled 1, 6, 7, and 9, and for the Kangaroos they've been fortunate enough to be able to pick roughly the same team skeleton for a number of years now.
Cameron Smith, Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston have been regulars together for the Queensland Origin team since 2005, with Slater joining the trio for the 2008 Origin series. The group has played the last nine successive Origin matches together, and 10 of the past 15 Test Matches, with the only variation in those other five being either Cooper Cronk or Scott Prince (also Queenslanders) filling in for Thurston.
If you compare the Kiwis on the other hand, there have been several changes from their 2010 Four Nations side to the side that played in Newcastle. They had plenty of new combinations with Kieran Foran paired with Benji for just the third time ever, Nathan Fien moving from halfback last year to hooker, Thomas Leuluai not playing, and Kevin Locke making his debut at fullback. It was always going to be a tough ask to expect this group to gel so quickly.
Whilst it's a less than ideal way to pull together the team, it's the only real option the Kiwis have, and it's why being based together in camp for a few weeks does wonders to their team cohesion both on and off the field.
Hopefully this helps you understand some of the challenges the Kiwis face every time they take on a powerhouse of the sport like Australia. As always, I'm backing the Kiwis to fight to the death and show their true colours in the upcoming Four Nations series in the United Kingdom.
Again Australia will go into this year's series as heavy favourites, as they were in 2005, 2008 and 2010, but we all saw what happened at the end of those tournaments.
Looking forward to what will be a fantastic tournament and can't wait to see Issac Luke leading the Haka to kick it all off!