Sonny Bill Williams is in top form following his super display against Papua New Guinea. Credit: SWpix.com Copyright: SWpix.com
New Zealand v Scotland
Headingly Carnegie Stadium, Leeds
Friday 8pm (UK time)
Saturday 7am (AEDT), 6am (AEST)
The success of the United States at this World Cup has taken some attention away from the sensational run of Scotland's Bravehearts at the tournament. The Scots were widely considered outsiders in their group against the highly fancied Tongans and an Italy side featuring several veteran NRL stars, yet they went through the first stage of the Cup undefeated. It wasn't easy – they pipped Tonga 26-24 in a nail-biter before battling out an entertaining 30-30 draw with the Italians, then beat the USA 22-8.
Even then, they still had to watch on nervously while Italy took on Tonga for a place in the final eight, but fortunately for the Bravehearts the Tongans prevailed to end Italy's tournament.
The only other undefeated teams at this World Cup are Australia and Scotland's next opponents, New Zealand. The Kiwis' Cup defence has gone pretty much to plan so far – they were scratchy in their 42-24 tournament opener against Samoa, sharper in their 48-0 thrashing of France, and impressive in their 56-10 routing of Papua New Guinea. With talent all over the park they'll start as warm favourites here.
In New Zealand team changes, Kevin Locke has taken the fullback spot from Josh Hoffman, despite Hoffman recovering from a shoulder knock he suffered against Papua New Guinea, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Frank Pritchard and captain Simon Mannering are set to return to the starting pack. Winger Manu Vatuvei will undergo a fitness test for his troublesome knee, with Jason Nightingale on standby. Sonny Bill Williams was battling a shoulder injury and the flu earlier in the week but is expected to play.
Watch Out New Zealand: Scotland's major strength in the group stage was the playmaking skills of their halves duo, Super League's Man of Steel Danny Brough and Panthers recruit Peter Wallace. Brough contributed two try assists and kicked three goals in the win over the USA, and will be the man to make the big plays while Wallace plays the safety-first organiser role at halfback (Brough has been prone to a few mistakes, leading Scotland's error count with six). Both halves have strong kicking games which will test out the Kiwis' back three and help Scotland match New Zealand in the territorial battle.
Watch Out Scotland: Where do you start? Sonny Bill Williams produced a near-perfect performance against the Kumuls, scoring a hat-trick and causing mayhem every time he met the defensive line. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been a revelation on the wing with four tries and six line breaks. Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson make up one of the best halves combinations on the planet, and Issac Luke has been the form hooker of the World Cup. It's going to be a lot for the Scotland defence to contain.
Key Match-Up: Kieran Foran v Danny Brough. Brough may be the key man for Scotland but he'll meet his match in Foran, who leads all players for try assists at this World Cup (seven, two more than the next best Joseph Paulo and Sam Tomkins). Kieran is the complete five-eighth – a good short kicking game, great passing game, aggressive in defence, an eye for a try and dependable as well with just one error in three World Cup matches so far. Brough will need to be at his very best in order to upstage Foran and make the Bravehearts competitive here.
Where It Will Be Won: New Zealand's attack. The Kiwis have shown signs of sloppiness in defence in this tournament – leaking 24 points to Samoa was a less than impressive start – but it's barely mattered as they've been the highest-scoring team at the World Cup by far, averaging close to 49 points a game. Scotland's defence will need to be near-perfect to contain the Kiwis, who have as much strike power in the forwards as the backs. If the men in black are their usual selves with ball in hand, we fear the Bravehearts don't stand much chance.
Televised: 7mate – Live 6.30am Saturday (NSW), 5.30am (Qld).
The Way We See It: The Kiwis have just been warming up with their opening three games but they need to switch on now, with a likely blockbuster semi-final against England looming after this match. They won't want to leave any room for improvement after their performance against Scotland, which is bad news for the Bravehearts. New Zealand to win by 30+.
*Statistics: NRL Stats