New Zealand v Papua New Guinea preview

New Zealand v Papua New Guinea
International Stadium, Rotorua
Saturday 6pm (NZ); 4pm (Sydney)

World champions New Zealand have one hand on a Four Nations final berth following their comprehensive 24-10 win over England in Wellington last week. With Australia short-priced favourites to follow suit on Sunday, and the Kiwis almost certain of knocking over the Kumuls on Saturday, even a defeat to Australia when they meet on November 6 would see the black jerseys progress to the final.

As was the case with Australia last week, the physicality of the committed PNG part-timers looms as a danger. Although the tournament match review committee bypassed laying any charges from this game, there were plenty of incidents that would have earned PNG players time off on the sidelines had it been an NRL game. Just ask Aussie back-rower Anthony Watmough, who copped a careless Kumuls high shot that split his nose open like an over-ripe plum.

And the Kiwis can ill afford to lose any more personnel, with impact winger Manu Vatuvei already gone with a busted forearm sustained after just two minutes last week.

Skipper Benji Marshall (39 receives) was inspirational in carving up the English and his attacking wizardry will get quite the workout against the Kumuls, who were restricted to just 41 per cent possession against the Kangaroos.

Coach Stephen Kearney will be looking for his side to show crisp execution, in readiness for their important clash with the green and gold in Brisbane. He’s made a few changes: Panthers prop Sam McKendry makes his debut alongside Frank-Paul Nuuausala, with Sika Manu coming into the second row. This relegates Greg Eastwood to the bench, with Frank Pritchard and Adam Blair rested. Sam Perrett replaces the injured Vatuvei, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves joins the bench replacing Ben Matulino.

Meanwhile the Kumuls will look to their best players from last week, including captain Paul Aiton, interchange Benjamin John (32 receives, 15 tackles, two offloads) and winger Michael Mark, to get them on the scoreboard.

Watch out Kiwis: Some ferocious hits from the Kumuls had spectators wincing at Parramatta Stadium last week. Benji Marshall loves to run, but he and fellow playmaker Nathan Fien would be mad to take on the PNG line. Instead, they’ll look to make an impact wide of the ruck with plenty of space to move.

Cronulla’s Paul Aiton, the only Kumul from the NRL, remains PNG’s danger man. He was busy and creative last week (four tackle-breaks, 43 tackles) earning praise from Kangaroos opposite No.9 Cameron Smith for his excellent “bump” when taking on the Australian defence. If Aiton can manoeuvre his side close to the Kiwis’ line he will look to get a charge from the likes of winger Michael Mark (14 runs, two tackle-breaks) in an effort to post their first points of the tournament.

Watch out Kumuls: The Kiwis’ hooker rotation of Thomas Leuluai and Issac Luke looks set to play a pivotal role in their Four Nations campaign given the duo’s dogged involvement last week.

Leuluai started the game against England and directed play superbly, making 62 receives and setting up a try as well as getting through his share of defence (31 tackles). When injected off the bench Luke caused all sorts of problems for the big England defenders, with 31 touches, 112 metres and a line-break.

Where it will be won: The strength of the Kiwis’ outside backs. Even with Vatuvei gone they are still an imposing unit – last week fullback Lance Hohaia, wingers Jason Nightingale and Junior Sa’u (shifted wide when Vatuvei came off) and centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall combined for 16 of the side’s 24 tackle-breaks, with in particular Nightingale (two line-breaks and two try assists) and Kenny-Dowall (a line-break) rampant.

The addition of Sam Perrett (leading dummy-half runner in the NRL with 210, plus an average run gain of 130 metres) only strengthens their attack.

Also, the Kumuls will be hard-pressed restricting the Kiwis’ second-phase play. Bronson Harrison, Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Frank Pritchard each contributed two offloads last week to generate some free-flowing attack.

The History: Played 15; New Zealand 14, PNG 1. New Zealand have won all five games on home soil. Also, the past three encounters between the nations have gone their way by a combined scoreline of 174-14.

Papua New Guinea’s sole victory came in 1986 on the back of two tries from Darius Haili in Port Moresby.

Conclusion: On home soil for the second time in seven days the Kiwis are shoo-ins to win. With Australia racking up 42 points against the Kumuls last Sunday the benchmark has been set for their assault. The scoreboard will give them a good gauge as to how they are building, with the real test their ability to match the Kangaroos’ clean sheet in defence.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins (Australia); Sideline Officials – Gerard Sutton (Australia) & Paul Holland (Australia); Video Ref – Russell Smith (Australia) and David Pakieto (observer, NZ).

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 12am; Fox Sports – check guides.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.