Nigel Wall, NRL.com
Australia Kangaroos v New Zealand Kiwis
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 6.30pm (Qld time)
The end-of-season representative calendar might be quieter than usual but that doesn’t mean these fierce opponents won’t be out to make some noise in one of the final international ‘trial’ matches before the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.
Already respective coaches Tim Sheens and Stephen Kearney have indicated they’ll use 2012’s second showdown between the Kangaroos and Kiwis as an audition for the major role that awaits the stage in England and Wales at the conclusion of the 2013 NRL season.
It’s a compelling match-up between the best players in the NRL, but one that will also feature an intriguing subplot given the indifferent performances at club level by the respective coaches – with Kearney losing his job at Parramatta and Sheens moved on from the head mentor role after a decade in charge of the Wests Tigers. Certainly a win by New Zealand would provide a measure of redemption for Kearney, while the pressure is on Sheens to keep the Kangaroos’ recent momentum going.
As has been the case in recent years, this post-GF Test will reward the players who have dazzled throughout the year while also providing opportunities for others coming through the ranks, substituting for some big names in the casualty ward.
Australia will field eight new faces from the side that beat New Zealand 20-12 at Eden Park in April, with Morris brothers Brett and Josh, plus Matt Scott, Greg Bird, Nate Myles, Robbie Farah, Ryan Hoffman and Tony Williams replacing Akuila Uate, Justin Hodges, Daly Cherry-Evans, Dave Taylor, Sam Thaiday, Anthony Watmough, Luke Lewis and Ben Hannant.
Meanwhile New Zealand have nine new faces, headed by Bulldogs Sam Perrett, Krisnan Inu, Sam Kasiano and Greg Eastwood, plus Manly five-eighth Kieran Foran and centre Dean Whare, Brisbane winger Gerard Beale, Storm back-rower Kevin Proctor and Warriors lock Elijah Taylor. Gone from their last encounter are the injured Manu Vatuvei, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Jeremy Smith and Jason Nightingale, plus Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Nathan Fien and Alex Glenn, while Sam McKendry and Shaun Johnson have been included only as shadow players this time around.
It’s the first time since 1988 that Australia will take to the field without a Brisbane Bronco among their ranks (Ben Te’o is 18th man for the green and gold) – while in an ironic twist the Kiwis will feature two Broncos in Hoffman and Beale.
Watch Out Kangaroos: The Canterbury factor will be significant for the Kiwis with Frank Pritchard, Kasiano, Perrett and Inu all keen to make amends for their grand final loss to Melbourne two weeks ago. An each poses a significant threat.
In the forwards, Kasiano and Pritchard loom as real dangers for the Australian defence. Kasiano’s ability to play before the line was a feature of the Bulldogs’ charge to the minor premiership while he and Pritchard are prolific offloaders with 35 and 30 respectively during the 2012 regular season. That sort of second- phase play will play right into the hands of Kiwi captain Benji Marshall.
Perrett and Inu will also be looking to play a leading role. Perrett is one of the game’s busiest players when it comes to helping out his forwards. In just nine games for Canterbury during the regular season he made a whopping 120 runs for an average 122 metres per game, while Inu produced his best football after returning to Sydney from the Warriors, scoring two tries on debut and twice kicking match-winning field goals – the only two field goals he has kicked in his career. No question he is a confidence player and if he is ‘on’ his pairing with Perrett will place ’Roos winger Darius Boyd under huge pressure.
Danger Sign: The Kangaroos can expect a working over out of dummy-half with Issac Luke in the mix. The Kiwi No.9 was a standout for South Sydney in 2012, ranking first in the NRL for dummy-half runs with 228 for 1894 metres and contributing four line-breaks, seven line-break assists and three try causes after picking up the ball at the ruck.
Watch Out Kiwis: Can New Zealand stand up to Australia’s monstrous front row on their home turf no less)? Key to Australia’s success will be their Cowboys combo of Matt Scott and James Tamou, who led the way for North Queensland in 2012. In fact, no side averaged more metres per game than the Cowboys (1439) with Scott and Tamou easily the most effective starting front-row duo in the NRL with an average 137 and 151 metres respectively.
The Kiwis will also need to be wary of the Morris twins, who combined brilliantly for NSW in the State of Origin decider and who team together on the right edge for the first time at representative level. They scored 31 tries between them during the 2012 regular season.
Danger Sign: Completion rates have been the bane of New Zealand’s existence in recent contests between these two sides. The closest they have come to downing the Aussies of late was earlier this season when they went down 20-12, having completed 28 of 39 sets at 72 per cent compared with 78 per cent by Australia. They struggled big time in last year’s Four Nations, completing just 67 per cent of sets to the Kangaroos’ 79 per cent in a 26-12 loss. And they were absolutely appalling in the 2011 Anzac Test, completing a woeful 43 per cent (15/35) in a 42-6 thrashing.
Cooper Cronk v Benji Marshall: There will be plenty of key match-ups this Saturday but none will be as crucial as that of playmakers Cooper Cronk and Benji Marshall. Marshall’s brilliance is no secret. Just as dangerous throwing a sublime pass as he is running the football, he produced 36 try assists, 33 line-break assists, six line-breaks and 71 tackle-breaks in 2012.
However, he’ll face a tough assignment against Storm premiership winner Cronk. The winner of the Churchill Medal for best on ground in the 2012 grand final, Cronk boasts the best long-kicking game in the competition, having kicked for a massive 10,435 metres this season with a 58.9 per cent success rate when it comes to finding open space. Also, he’s produced 29 try assists and 22 line-break assists.
Where It Will Be Won: Up front is where it is always decided in these big games. Australia will look to a forward pack boasting relentless go-forward and a tremendous ability to grind their opposition into the ground, while New Zealand will hope that their go-forward out of dummy-half and the skills of their big men will cause problems for Australia’s tall timber. It promises to be an absorbing battle.
The History: Played 123; Kangaroos 91, Kiwis 29, drawn 3. New Zealand may be the World Champions but they have a dismal record against Australia in recent years, winning just three of their past 20 clashes.
The Last Time They Met: Australia defeated New Zealand 20-12 at Eden Park on April 20 in a gritty contest played during the NRL’s inaugural Representative Round.
In one of the closest battles between the nations in recent years the Kiwis drew first blood when hooker Issac Luke burrowed over from dummy-half in the 12th minute, with skipper Benji Marshall converting for a 6-nil lead.
The home fans’ joy was short-lived however, with back-to-back four-pointers to new Kangaroos five-eighth Johnathan Thurston (21st minute, jinking over from first receiver) and centre Greg Inglis (26th minute, off a Billy Slater try assist) placing Australia in the box seat in the 10 minutes leading up to halftime.
However, the green and gold had their backs to the wall soon after when star fullback Slater was sin-binned for a professional foul on Kiwi interchange Alex Glenn.
New Zealand mounted wave after wave of attack but were unable to capitalise on their numbers advantage and when a Thurston penalty goal on the stroke of halftime edged Australia to an eight-point buffer, fans got the sense the Kiwis may have blown a huge chance to get back into the match.
But Kiwi No.7 Shaun Johnson had other ideas. In the 46th minute the explosive halfback intercepted a Cooper Cronk pass and raced 85 metres to score, with Marshall adding the extras for a 14-12 scoreline that brought the crowd to life.
The game hung in the balance before Kangaroos skipper Cameron Smith forced his way over from close range, wrestling free of the attention of three Kiwis defenders to score the match-winning try in the 69th minute.
There was barely a split match between the sides on the stats sheet: New Zealand edged their arch rivals for territory (1353 metres to 1325 metres) and both sides completed 28 sets with the ball.
However, Australia managed to do more with the ball in hand, making five line-breaks to New Zealand’s two.
Australia were best served by prop Paul Gallen, who made 18 hit-ups, seven tackle-breaks and three offloads, and captain Smith who scored a try, registered a whopping 118 receives and added a game-high 51 tackles.
For New Zealand, Manu Vatuvei was a constant threat on the left wing with 173 metres and six tackle-breaks, while the Frank Pritchard and Issac Luke (three offloads each) kept the second phase flowing.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins (Aus); Sideline Officials – Russell Turner (Aus) & Anthony Elliot (NZ); Video Referees – Paul Simpkins (Aus) & Leon Williamson (NZ).
The Way We See It: There is no doubt that New Zealand has closed the gap on Australia over the past five or six years and in any one-off game they are a great chance of securing the win. However, on consistency alone (and the fact that they are on home soil) it is never wise to back against the Aussies. Their great advantage is their array of big-game players. All but one of their 17 took part in this year’s State of Origin series, which was one of the best of all time, while three of their four key position players (Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater) plus Ryan Hoffman won a grand final just two weeks ago. The Aussies should edge it – Kangaroos by six points.
Channel 9 – Live from 6.30pm (Qld), 7.30pm (NSW), 6:00pm (NT)
GEM - Live from 7:00pm (SA)
WIN - Live from 7:30pm (Tasmania)
Sky Sport 2 - Live from 7:00pm (NZ)
*Statistics: NRL Stats