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Australia v New Zealand
AAMI Park, Melbourne
Friday 8.10pm

A brand new Test arena in AAMI Park – but will it be the same old story as Darren Lockyer celebrates his 51st game in charge of the Kangaroos this Friday?

Scratch that. The Kiwis have actually been quite competitive against Australia in games with a decent preparation and build-up, as evidenced by their 20-all draw in the two sides’ only clash during last year’s Four Nations tournament.

However, their record in ‘occasional’ Tests is abysmal – they have yet to win in Australia since the ‘one-off’ Test concept was introduced in 1998, having won the inaugural clash 22-16 on home soil. The average result in the nine games since sees the Kangaroos winning by an average 37-9 score line. During that time the most points the Kiwis have scored were 16 in 2005 – which unfortunately for them was just one third of the total points scored in the game.

Here, they come up against a Kangaroos side whose backline is arguably more potent than in previous years.

For starters, Eels superstar Jarryd Hayne returns after missing the corresponding Test last year – but he still can’t shunt Billy Slater from his preferred fullback position.

The NRL’s leading try-scorer Brett Morris (11) holds down the other wing after a solid Four Nations campaign and devastating form for the Dragons in 2010, while the Sea Eagles’ Jamie Lyon slots into the centres in place of the injured Justin Hodges.   

And while some would argue Cooper Cronk is no Johnathan Thurston (out injured), the Storm halfback’s combinations with Slater, Greg Inglis and club captain Cameron Smith will be of huge benefit to the green and golds.

Their prop rotation is strong, with starters Petero Civoniceva and David Shillington ably supported by Josh Perry and Michael Weyman, who makes his Test debut off the bench.

The back row of Sam Thaiday, Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen combines grunt and creativity, while Kurt Gidley and Anthony Watmough are capable of ripping holes in the Kiwis’ defence when they are injected off the bench.

The Kiwis are missing a bunch of experience and talent, with the likes of Roy Asotasi, Simon Mannering, Manu Vatuvei and Jeremy Smith unavailable due to injury.

Their hopes rest with halves combination Kieran Foran and Benji Marshall, as well as hooker Issac Luke.

In what would be a significant milestone, Darren Lockyer needs just one try to leapfrog Ken Irvine’s 33 four-pointers in Test matches.

Watch out Kangaroos:
The Kiwis’ livewire hooker Issac Luke needs to be contained. He’s having a banner year, leading the NRL’s hookers in all the important categories – average runs and metres (130), line-breaks (6), line-break assists (4), offloads (13) and tackle-breaks (41).

He also ranks equal-first of all players for dummy-half runs (75) alongside Kiwi winger Sam Perrett – the duo will definitely look to catch out any lapses at marker by the Kangaroos, as well as target tired defenders in the middle of each half.  

A potential black spot for the Kangaroos is defence – they missed a whopping 52 tackles the last time they met the Kiwis. They can’t afford that complacency again.

Watch out Kiwis: The Aussies have strike-power all around the park, but one player who could get under their guard is lock Paul Gallen. In a struggling Sharks side Gallen has stood tall every week – his 1270 metres gained is the second most in the NRL, as is his 159 metres a game. Plus, his 168 runs are a massive 20 more than next best hit-up merchant Jarryd Hayne, and his 22 offloads are the most in the NRL.

Elsewhere, the Kiwis need to look out for the pet play of Melbourne duo Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater – where Cronk gets the ball on a long right edge, takes on the line and throws a no-look inside pass to his trailing fullback. It’ll come on tackle three or four, around 35 metres out.

Where it will be won:
In territory. The Kangaroos will get significant roll-on from their tough forward pack. Seven of their members are averaging more than 100 metres in NRL games this year: Gallen, Petero Civoniceva (153), Thaiday (125), David Shillington (123), Anthony Watmough (118), Josh Perry (102) and Michael Weyman (100).

By comparison, just Sam Rapira for the Kiwis (107 metres) is busting triple figures each week. Elsewhere, Bronson Harrison is tallying 90, Alex Glenn 86… then it tapers off to Zeb Taia (82), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (79), Frank-Paul Nuuasala (78), Adam Blair (66) and Ben Matulino (58).

Still, the Kiwis have a habit of rising to the occasion. In their 20-all draw the last time these sides met the Kiwis restricted the Kangaroos to just 1285 metres of territory. Granted, they were kept to 1056 metres themselves, but the difference (231 metres) isn’t a huge divide and if they manage a similar effort in this game they will stay in the contest.

The history:
Played 116, Australia 85, New Zealand 28, drawn 3. The Kangaroos have won nine of the past 11 games between the nations, with one draw. But the Kiwis won the big one – the 2008 World Cup Final.  

If – and it’s a big if – the Kiwis can stay with the Aussies for the first 20 minutes, they might be able to make a show of it.

In their most recent clash they scored first and contained the Aussies well for the remainder of the first stanza to head to halftime at 6-all. They trailed by eight points with 25 minutes to play – but rallied to actually lead the Kangaroos 16-14 with 10 minutes remaining and 20-14 with five minutes left. It was only Cameron Smith’s last-minute try that levelled the result.

Trouble is, the Kiwis will lean heavily on too few contributors, whereas the Kangaroos will be able to spread the load.

No disrespect intended Kiwi fans, but if your boys stay within 12 points, it will be a job well done.

Match officials: Referee – Richard Silverwood (England); Sideline Officials – Paul Holland (Aus) & Adam Burns (NZ); Video Ref – Bill Harrigan (Aus) & David Pakieto (NZ).

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
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