Darren Lockyer leads the Kangaroos out to face the world champions tomorrow night hell-bent on revenge for their surprise drubbing at the hands of the Kiwis in the World Cup Final last November.
And how some things have changed since that fateful night when New Zealand hijacked the previously unbeaten Australia side to wrest the title with a slightly flattering 34-20 scoreline. For starters, the loss indirectly cost Ricky Stuart his job as coach of the green-and-golds after he mouthed off at referee Ashleigh Klein. Stuart, disgraced and embarrassed, stood down from the position, with wily and experienced Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens appointed.
That in itself is hugely significant given the newly appointed Kiwi captain is none other than Sheens’ potent attacking clubman Benji Marshall. In a major surprise, Marshall has been handed the captaincy over the returning Roy Asotasi, who missed the Cup Final, after the retirement of Nathan Cayless from rep duties.
The Australian side has been tweaked since its last outing; Justin Hodges returns from injury and leave on personal grounds, pushing Israel Folau to the wing in place of David Williams, while the Dragons’ in-form Darius Boyd has usurped Joel Monaghan on the other flank. Boyd’s inclusion means that for only the second time since 1924 the Australian backline will boast seven starting Queenslanders.
In the pack, Steve Price returns after missing the World Cup Final; he pushes Brent Kite to the bench which also includes Luke Bailey, Anthony Watmough and Kurt Gidley.
The Kiwis have transposed their halves, with Nathan Fien shifting to five-eighth and Marshall named at halfback. Hooker Thomas Leuluai is gone, replaced by the Wests Tigers’ Dene Halatau (after Issac Luke was unsuccessful at beating a striking charge at the judiciary on Wednesday night). Greg Eastwood, Jeff Lima, Jason Nightingale and Iosia Soliola make up their bench.
The history of these one-off Tests doesn’t make for pleasant reading if you’re a New Zealander. Since 1999 they’ve lost 20-14, 52-0, 48-6, 37-10, 32-16, 50-12, 30-6 and then last year in the Centenary Test 28-12.
It’s stern evidence the Kiwis need a series of games to build their combinations and confidence. Can they turn this trend around in Brisbane?
Watch out Kangaroos: Expect the major players from their World Cup Final win to again rise to the occasion, while Asotasi should fill Cayless’ boots more than adequately. The South Sydney skipper is averaging 127 metres gained each week; he should be feeling stung at not being appointed captain and consequently the Australians may be on the end of a powerhouse performance.
The Kiwis will benefit from just the one referee officiating. The ruck is likely to be more of a wrestle than it is each week under two refs in the NRL, which will give the Kiwis a chance to slow the pace of the game down and reset their defensive line.
But a dour struggle also means sides will have to look to offloads to keep the play expansive; in this regard the Kiwis are well-fortified with the likes of Bronson Harrison (31 offloads, most in the NRL), Adam Blair and David Fa’alogo.
Without doubt, though, their hopes are pinned on the unpredictable brilliance of Benji Marshall; he ranks second in the NRL for try assists (10) and can turn the tide of a seemingly lost cause in the blink of an eye.
Watch out Kiwis: The loss of Issac Luke is a massive blow for the visitors. For South Sydney the diminutive hooker has made 57 dummy-half runs, the second most in the NRL, and he was sure to present problems for the Australian defence in the ruck. His replacement Dene Halatau is not a noted dummy-half runner so a rethink on tactics, with just two days to practise them, represents a significant setback for New Zealand.
Where it will be won: Tim Sheens has made it clear he thinks the Aussies spread the ball too wide, too quickly in the World Cup Final, contributing to their loss. So he wants them to battle it out for territory up the centre. And with hard, proven metre-eaters like Steve Price (161 metres a game in NRL, top average for a forward), Petero Civoniceva (most metres by a forward with 1191) and Luke Bailey (139 metres), why wouldn’t you?
Once the Aussies have ground out a dominance in the centre and tired the Kiwis’ big defenders, look for their second-wave to click into gear, with swift second-man moves to men in open space involving Darius Boyd (51 tackle breaks, most in the NRL), Billy Slater (44 tackle breaks, second in NRL), Justin Hodges and Israel Folau.
The History: Played 114, Australia 84, New Zealand 28, drawn 2. The Kangaroos have won seven of the past eight games between the nations – but the Kiwis won the one that mattered most.
Conclusion: Australia was beaten in the World Cup Final after being starved of ball. They completed just 22 of 33 sets while their opponents ran riot late on the back of a dominant 34 of 40 completions.
That’s 12 sets more – but don’t expect that to happen here.
Look for the ’Roos to put first points on the board – they have scored the first try in each of the past six Tests between the nations – and after a sorting-out period, attempt to run away to an unassailable lead. Folau (first scorer three times for the Broncos), Slater and Greg Inglis (one of only eight Australians to score a hat-trick against the Kiwis, in 2007) should lead their ‘shock and awe’ campaign.
If the Kiwis hang tough to trail by eight points with 20 minutes to go they are some show. Anything other than that and it will be a dominant Aussie victory.
Match officials: Referee – Richard Silverwood (Eng); Sideline Officials – Paul Holland (Aus) & Adam Burns (NZ); Video Refs – Bill Harrigan (Aus) & David Pakeito (NZ).
Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.