New Zealand v Australia preview

New Zealand v Australia
Eden Park, Auckland
Saturday 8.15pm NZ Time, 6.15pm AEDT

You might hear a few people refer to this game as a ‘dead rubber’ – but the truth is, there is no such thing as a dead rubber when it comes to Test matches.

Sure, these two teams will suit up again in the Four Nations final in Brisbane next weekend regardless of the result here – but this is still a Test match and the result will still go down in the record books. And it also heralds a return to the spiritual Eden Park.

Try telling Australian debutants Chris Lawrence, Todd Carney, Dean Young and Matthew Scott the match means nothing! Quite frankly this sort of thinking is disrespectful to international football and all of the warriors who have bled for their countries for more than 100 years.

Plus, we all know how important momentum can be in football; the winner here will have a massive psychological boost going into the final.

Both sides have disposed of England and Papua New Guinea comfortably in previous weeks of the tournament, giving them reasonable form. While the Kiwis have looked pretty solid, the Kangaroos haven’t been their usual punishing selves; yet still they have been able to get the job done. They gave England a 34-14 thumping last week but have made several changes to the side for this clash, resting a few weary players in order to freshen up for the final.

Fullback Billy Slater is out, replaced by Clive Churchill Medal winner Darius Boyd. Centre Willie Tonga has made way for Lawrence, while skipper Darren Lockyer has been rested, with Dally M Medal winner and RLIF International Player of the Year Carney slated to play five-eighth.

Prop Nate Myles is out, with Scott taking his place, while Petero Civoniceva will start from the bench, allowing David Shillington to start the match.

Two-try hero Luke Lewis will miss this clash, with his second row position filled by Greg Bird.

Anthony Watmough comes off the bench for Young and Robbie Farah also joins the reserves list.

For the Kiwis, Adam Blair comes back into the side at prop after missing last week’s game against PNG, which means Sam McKendry misses out.

Frank Pritchard also returns to the side on the bench, in place of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, and Ben Matulino has been named which pushes Bronson Harrison out of the line-up.

Watch out Kiwis: Lockyer is an Aussie stalwart but his replacement this week, Todd Carney, is no slouch in the playmaking department. This could very well be an audition for the Sydney Roosters pivot, as the green-and-gold start to contemplate life after Locky. Consequently, the Kiwis could be in for some trouble.

Carney has a brilliant, accurate pass from both sides and also loves to take on the line – a rarity amongst halves these days. During the 2010 NRL season he averaged 89 metres running a match (a big number for a halfback) and also made 21 line-breaks, the most by a Rooster. He also scored an impressive 16 tries and notched 133 tackle-breaks.

Carney is no slouch setting up others either, with 19 line-break assists for the year and 18 try assists. If he has a big game he’ll push for inclusion on the bench for next week’s final.

Watch out Kangaroos: The centre pairing for the Kiwis is coming along in leaps and bounds. Both Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Junior Sa’u have proven to be impressive players in the past few seasons and the Kiwis are finally reaping some rewards. Last week against the Kumuls Sa’u had a field day with 18 runs for 206 metres, a try assist, seven tackle-breaks, an offload, two line-breaks and of course his hat-trick of tries. At the Knights this season he averaged 102 metres for the entire year.

Kenny-Dowall has had a mammoth year in club footy. He averaged 127 metres gained, grabbed 20 line-breaks and 21 tries. He also broke a massive 170 tackles.

With each man getting quality ball from Benji Marshall, the Aussie centres need to be better defensively. Lawrence especially has a question mark on this aspect of his game in terms of reading the attack and reacting accordingly.

In 2010 Lawrence was ineffective in defence more than 15 per cent of the time – and, worryingly, Brent Tate was ineffective close to 20 per cent of the time… neither can afford these slip-ups.

Where it will be won: In the spines of the teams. The ‘spine’ of a rugby league team is their 1, 6, 7 and 9. Defence is unlikely to be as important in this match as it will be next week, so it will fall on the attacking dynamics to score enough points to secure victory.

The Kiwis have started to build a nice combination with Lance Hohaia at the back, Marshall and Nathan Fien in the halves and Thomas Leuluai and Issac Luke rotating at hooker. Each of these guys has both running and playmaking skills aplenty; consequently the Kangaroos’ defenders need to be on their toes at all times. Marshall in particular is basically four-dimensional! You have no idea what he is going to do until he has done it – and by then it can be too late to adjust. In fact, all of these Kiwi boys are unpredictable.

On the Aussie side of the fence, Boyd, Carney, Cooper Cronk and stand-in skipper Cameron Smith are their spine – with both Farah and Young options at hooker also. Boyd proved this season he can be an adept playmaker as well as a runner and Cronk is very solid in the no.7. Smith is super crafty and will work over the Kiwi marker defence – but Carney is the X-factor. If he can fire and isn’t over-awed, he could be the difference.

The History: Played 117; Australia 86, New Zealand 28, drawn 3. Australia hold a 32-13 advantage in games played across the ditch, with two draws. The Kangaroos achieved their biggest ever win (58-0) in Wellington in 2007.

Conclusion: The Kiwis are coming into the match at full strength while the Aussies have rested a few. Some of their changes, though, are arguably for the better.

The emotion of the occasion will help the Kiwis, as will the home crowd. They looked primed and ready and although they have come in with the softer preparation, they appear ready to take down the Aussies.

It will be close, probably a try or less in it.

Match officials: Referee – Richard Silverwood (England); Sideline Officials – Gerard Sutton (Australia) & James Child (England); Video Referee – Bill Harrigan (Australia) – D Pakieto (NZ Observer).

Televised: Check guides.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.