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Australia v Papua New Guinea
Parramatta Stadium

Sunday 4pm (AEDT)

The greatest challenge for the Kangaroos in their opening game of the Four Nations tournament on Sunday afternoon is to safely sidestep injury. While the Papua New Guinea side is low on high-calibre talent, with just captain Paul Aiton drafted from the ranks of the NRL, the fiercely rugby league-passionate nation has forged a reputation for fielding outfits prepared to put their bodies on the line.

Indeed, games against PNG give new meaning to the words ‘bruising encounter’. Just ask the guys who represented the Prime Minister’s 13 against the Kumuls in Port Moresby late last month – they may have won 30-18 but the ferocity of their application left many in the green nursing bruises.

The curious selection is that of captain Darren Lockyer; rather than wrapping him in cotton wool with a view to the big prize coach Tim Sheens has decided he needs some game time to get him cherry-ripe for the Final on November 13. While that’s sound in theory, all it will take is one well-directed hit to Lockyer’s ribs for a possible recurrence of the injury that saw him sidelined for the final four weeks of the Broncos’ 2010 campaign. Take the tip: Lockyer won’t be running with the ball much – if at all!

Sheens has opted for an aggressive mix of incumbents and newcomers, with Roosters dynamo Nate Myles set to debut at prop while Wests Tigers winger Lote Tuqiri, a late inclusion for the injured Jarryd Hayne, gets a recall to the national side for the first time since 2002, and 12 months after returning to league from rugby union.

Raiders prop Tom Learoyd-Lahrs makes his Test debut on the bench, while Knight Kurt Gidley retains his utility bench spot.

Watch out Kangaroos: Despite the low profile of their opponents (only Cronulla’s Paul Aiton hails from the NRL) the Kangaroos need to focus and match the intensity of the Kumuls early in the game. Many’s the time a star player has sustained a serious injury through a half-hearted tackle or lapse in technique.

Also, it’s tough to coach against unpredictability, and that will be one of PNG’s greatest weapons. Consequently the Aussies should be ready for last-tackle running plays and also attacking kicks early in tackle counts, especially close to the Australian line.

The Papua New Guinea players to watch out for include hooker Aiton, who proved a busy defender for the Sharks this year, making an average 24 tackles in his 40 minutes a game. He also busted 48 tackles – four more than former rep star Anthony Tupou.

Elsewhere, 20-year-old fullback Ryan Tongia served the Titans well in the Toyota Cup, making a whopping team-high 111 tackle-breaks and averaging 129 metres a game. He also made 19 line-breaks.

Back-rower Rodney Griffin scored a try in Northern Pride’s grand final win in the Queensland Cup and is sure to offer some spark, while Parkes ‘Spacemen’ hooker/halfback Benjamin John is tipped to be a livewire around the ruck.  

Watch out Kumuls:
Tim Sheens will be keen for his players to shed their ring rust with a disciplined performance in readiness for their games with England and New Zealand. That means building pressure through gains through the centre of the ruck before playmakers Cooper Cronk and captain Lockyer give their outside backs some room to move.

Expect the back three of Billy Slater (10 tries, 12 try assists, 18 line-break assists, 13 line-breaks in the NRL in 2010), Brett Morris (20 tries, 23 line-breaks) and Lote Tuqiri (18 tries, 123 tackle-breaks) to run amok.

The Kumuls need to work for each other and generate plenty of communication – if they don’t they’ll leave a staggered line that will be exploited mercilessly by the green and gold. It’s going to happen; the question is when, and how many points that will lead to.

Where it will be won: The sheer weight of star quality. The Kangaroos have it, the Kumuls don’t. That’s not being disrespectful to the visitors who are clearly up against it.

The History: Played 10 Tests (not including PM’s XIII); Kangaroos 10, Kumuls 0. The Kangaroos recorded their highest winning margin in 2000 when thumping the Kumuls 32-0 in Townsville. The most points the Kumuls have ever scored against Australia is 14 in 1992.

Conclusion: Australia are unbackable favourites to win and win well. But given all the fanfare and push for a team from PNG to be admitted to the NRL in the next few years, the onus is on the Kumuls to show they can be competitive, if even only in spurts against the best in the business.

The visitors’ goal will be to score more than 14 points – if they do they will have set themselves a new benchmark they can be proud of.

Meanwhile the Kangaroos need to ensure some new combinations click from the outset. Coach Sheens has been vocal in his support for specialist winger Tuqiri but the Wests Tigers flier’s addition leaves the side with two left-side wingers. It’s expected Tuqiri will shift to the right to leave Brett Morris in his favoured position. While that won’t have any great effect in this game, Tuqiri will need the hit-out to prepare for a tougher assignment next week against England.

The danger to the Aussies is injuries. As prop David Shillington told this week, the shorter Kumuls players have a good front-on defensive technique and are just the right height for digging in under the rib cages. They’ll need to brace themselves for some moments of ferocity.

It should be a frantic points-scoring affair; the Kangaroos by 32.

Billy Slater, Brett Morris, Brent Tate, Willie Tonga, Lote Tuqiri, Darren Lockyer (c), Cooper Cronk, Nate Myles, Cameron Smith, Petero Civoniceva, Luke Lewis, Sam Thaiday, Paul Gallen. Interchange (from): David Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Anthony Watmough, Kurt Gidley, Darius Boyd, Matt Scott.

Papua New Guinea: Ryan Tongia, Michael Mark, Jessy Joe Parker, Emmanuel Yere, Elijah Riyong, Glen Nami, Dion Aiye, Makali Aizue, Benjamin John, George Moni, Rodney Griffin, David Loko, Paul Aiton (c). Interchange (from): Charlie Wabo, Nickson Kolo, Johnson Kuike, Larsen Marabe, Pidi Tongap, Alex Haija, Richard Kambo.

Match officials: Referees – Shane Rehm (New Zealand); Sideline Officials – Gerard Sutton (Australia) & James Child (England); Video Ref – Steve Clark (Australia).

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 4pm; Fox Sports – delayed 6pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.
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