New Zealand v England preview

New Zealand v England
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Saturday 8pm (6pm AEDST)

If the Four Nations is going to go according to script then this, the first clash of the tournament, shapes as the most important of the series.

New Zealand will start the game considerable favourites on their home turf but the English have brought with them a squad full of power and intimidation with hardened forwards Gareth Ellis, James Graham and Stuart Fielden now burdened with the responsibility of covering the massive hole left by the withdrawal of inspirational captain Adrian Morley.

Morley ruptured his right bicep in just the sixth minute of last weekend’s warm-up match against New Zealand Maori, a devastating blow considering the unavailability of regular England captain Jamie Peacock due to a knee injury.

New Zealand are renowned for playing their best football at the back end of tournaments but can ill afford to come out of the blocks slowly on this occasion. In the opening game of their World Cup triumph in 2008 the Kiwis were humbled 30-6 by Australia before getting the better of England on two occasions to qualify for and then go on to win the final.

Their prospects have been significantly enhanced due to the number of players who went all the way through to the grand final with St George Illawarra and the Sydney Roosters. Jason Nightingale, Nathan Fien and Jeremy Smith were all outstanding for the Dragons in the NRL decider while the Roosters’ fairytale run was built largely on the back of the forward presence of Frank-Paul Nuuausala and the backline potency of Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Sam Perrett.

Add to this core the brilliant displays of captain Benji Marshall for the Wests Tigers and the constant threats posed by Warriors’ duo Lance Hohaia and Manu Vatuvei, and the Kiwis are well equipped in every position.

Although England were 20-12 victors when these two teams last met in the 2009 Four Nations series, the Kiwis have had the edge in their previous three clashes, including a 49-6 thumping in the 2000 World Cup semi-final.

Members of the English squad who played in the 2007 series for Great Britain will be calling on those memories for a confidence boost, as the likes of Graham, Ellis, Sam Burgess, Sean O’Loughlin and James Roby played significant roles in the 3-0 series whitewash.

Both teams got a good look at each other in a double-header of trial matches last weekend with New Zealand’s confidence done no harm with a 50-6 thrashing of Samoa following England’s 18-all draw with New Zealand Maori.

Watch out Kiwis: It’s always obvious to point to the forward pack (and the English have one brimming with size and power) but it is perhaps the two smallest men on the field who will have the greatest influence on England’s chances.

Sam Tomkins has proven himself in the past 12 months to be one of the most exciting talents in rugby league and how he handles the pressure of halfback in a fierce international is crucial for the visitors.

Even smaller still (in height at least), Luke Robinson was integral in Huddersfield’s Super League charge in 2010 and was dynamic in last week’s match against the Maori. If the Kiwi forwards tire at the back end of either half, look for Robinson to create havoc around the ruck.

Watch out England: Always physical and often brilliant, consistency has been an issue that has plagued New Zealand in recent years but this team looks more settled than any in recent memory.

Captain Benji Marshall had his finest NRL season in five years while hooker Issac Luke stamped himself as one of the game’s premier no.9s and will be a threat off the bench.

Add to those pair the experience gained by St George Illawarra premiership-winner Nathan Fien and the outstanding season of Warriors fullback Lance Hohaia and the Kiwis are settled in all key attacking positions. A big performance first up will send an ominous message to the Kangaroos.

Where it will be won: Composure. The team that can settle into the game and execute what they have been training for will likely gain the ascendancy. This is a massive game for both teams with two gigantic packs so the opening exchanges will be ferocious. The team that is able to settle into their pattern after the 20-minute mark should go on and win.

The history: Played 6; New Zealand 3, England 2, drawn 1. England qualified for the final of the 2009 Four Nations by defeating New Zealand 20-12 but face a tougher proposition on foreign soil. To find England’s only other victory you have to go back to 1975, while the only match between these two in New Zealand was a 17-all draw in 1977.

Conclusion: In something of a role reversal, England will be relying on a big pack of forwards and individual brilliance while the Kiwis look far the more complete team.

Losing Morley is a massive blow to England’s chances while everything about New Zealand’s preparation suggests they should win, and perhaps handsomely.

Match officials: Referee – Tony Archer (Australia); Sideline Officials – Paul Holland (Australia) & Daniel Caddy (New Zealand); Video Referees – Bill Harrigan (Australia) & David Pakieto (New Zealand).

Televised: Fox Sports 3 – Live 6pm; Channel Nine – Delayed 11.40pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed, 9am Sunday.