Four Nations final preview: Australia vs NZ


Australia v New Zealand
Suncorp Stadium
Saturday 7.15pm Qld (8.15pm NSW, 10.15pm NZ)

Last week may have been a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the 2010 Four Nations final – but don’t get a shock if Saturday night comes and goes and we all discover someone re-wrote the story in the week since.

The Kangaroos were clinical and gutsy in disposing of the Kiwis in front of a hostile crowd of 44,000 in Auckland last Saturday and as such deserve favouritism to retain their Four Nations crown. But more than a few things went wrong for the World Champions, who looked one-dimensional and tentative for much of the evening before Benji Marshall hit the afterburners to put some respectability back into the score line. (And with time elapsing, who’s to say they wouldn’t have gotten even closer had the contest continued?)

After a bunch of experimentation and speculation, the nitty gritty of the business end of the tournament sees both sides settle on their strongest outfits – and for the Kangaroos that means a reluctant goodbye (possibly forever?) to 44-Test stalwart Petero Civoniceva, who personally relinquished his bench spot due to some sluggish, weary form.

Fullback Billy Slater, centre Willie Tonga, second-rower Luke Lewis (man of the match against England) and bench player Kurt Gidley return after a week’s rest. Lewis pushes Greg Bird, who was forceful last week (142 metres, five tackle-breaks, two offloads and a line-break) onto the bench, while Nate Myles is coach Tim Sheens’ replacement for Civoniceva.

Meanwhile Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney has elevated Greg Eastwood to his starting side, pushing Frank-Paul Nuuausala to the pine, while Sika Manu has lost his place in the top 17, with the Raiders’ Bronson Harrison to start in the second row (makes some sense given the Kangaroos’ Canberra connection of Dave Shillington and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs). Also, after a week’s rest, young Penrith prop Sam McKendry returns to the fold on the bench. Frank Pritchard was unavailable due to injury.

Only four Kangaroos (Slater, Darren Lockyer, Cameron Smith and Paul Gallen) remain from the team that fell to the Kiwis in the 2008 World Cup Final, while New Zealand have 10 of their victorious 17 still within their ranks (Lance Hohaia, Sam Perrett, Benji Marshall, Nathan Fien, Thomas Leuluai, Adam Blair, Simon Mannering, Harrison, Jeremy Smith, Issac Luke and Eastwood).

Suncorp Stadium hasn’t been kind to the Kiwis – they’ve won just four of 21 Tests played there.

Also, you can bet it will be an emotional night for the Brisbane crowd, with Darren Lockyer playing his last Test at Suncorp Stadium (another isn’t scheduled for Queensland until at least 2012). It’s the respected captain’s 54th in the green and gold.

Incredibly, local Lote Tuqiri plays his first Test in his home state.

Watch out Kangaroos: Two words: Benji Marshall. Last week the Kiwi skipper made a game-high seven tackle-breaks and equal game-high three line-breaks, plus two try assists. Earlier this week he told NRL.com his dazzling, deceptive play was not an off-the-cuff occurrence but rather something he practises. They say practice makes perfect… well, Benji’s been practising a lot for this ultimate showdown.

Expect Shaun Kenny-Dowall to massively improve on his modest 91 metres and just two tackle-breaks last week. For the Roosters in the NRL he averaged 129 metres and ranked second in the comp for tackle busts with 156.

Issac Luke was top in the NRL for dummy-half line-breaks (eight) and his 192 dummy-half runs were second to Kiwi team-mate Sam Perrett’s 210. They need plenty from the duo.

Watch out Kiwis: New Zealand need to be wary across the park. The Kangaroos have scored 20 tries in the tournament to date, off the back of 19 line-breaks – with 11 different try-scorers. Willie Tonga, Brent Tate and Brett Morris lead the way with three each, with Morris’s tally from his eight Tests now an impressive 11 tries.

With Civoniceva dropping himself, expect Matt Scott (125 metres and 28 tackles in 49 minutes last week) to deliver and show he belongs in the green and gold for a while to come.

Enforcers Paul Gallen and Greg Bird will bend the Kiwi line at every opportunity.

The forgotten man could be Kurt Gidley off the bench – the Newcastle utility missed last week, played just 17 minutes against England and barely raised a sweat against PNG. He could be the game breaker.

Where it will be won: The tempo of the game. The Kangaroos shot out to an 18-2 lead after 24 minutes last week, largely on the back of a fast pace. There was intent and urgency about everything they did, whether it was getting a fast play-the-ball or kicking for touch quickly after receiving a penalty. They also directed their kicks well and made sure long-range probes stayed away from the sidelines, limiting the amount of time the big Kiwi forwards had to suck in the deep breaths and recover from their early involvement. That ensured the home side was always on the back foot early.

The Kangaroos will look to replicate that on home soil on Saturday.

Meanwhile the Kiwis will look to their smart and elusive dummy-half runners, especially outside men including Perrett, to get their opponents retreating and on the back foot early. Last week the Kiwis ran from dummy-half more than twice as many times as the Kangaroos (33-16) and they gained good territory (258 metres to 104 metres). But not too much of that came in the first quarter of the game… when they needed it.

The Kiwis may also want to rethink their policy of putting the ball into touch, thus limiting the impact of the Kangaroos’ broken play runners including Billy Slater. Last week the Kangaroos were required to cart the ball back from kicks on just six occasions, for a 62-metre gain. Granted, gifting a star like Slater too much of an opportunity isn’t a smart tactic but the Kiwis need to get a confidence boost from somewhere - and providing they follow their kicks with a good chase and apply pressure, it could lead to a valuable possession turnover deep in Aussie territory.

The History: Played 118; Australia 87, New Zealand 28, drawn 3. The 'Roos hold a 48 to 13 advantage in games played in Australia. The Kiwis have managed just five wins in the past 31 meetings between these sides – but two of those were the Tri Nations Final in 2005 and World Cup Final (at Suncorp Stadium) in 2008.

Conclusion: It would seem the only concern for the Kangaroos would be the burden of recent history: in the 2008 World Cup they smashed the Kiwis 30-6 in their sole pool game, then five weeks later were bushwhacked 34-20 in the final. Last week’s victory was decisive, but a drop in intensity towards the end allowed the Kiwis to show what they are capable of.

The Kangaroos are a well-drilled, well-balanced side. They work as a team rather than as a clump of brilliant individuals, and that’s their biggest advantage: should one or more players deliver less than their usual contribution, the others can cover the ‘slack’. That’s not quite the case with the Kiwis. They need Marshall to fire, early and often. They need Kenny-Dowall to puncture the line, early, to sow the seeds of doubt out wide. They need Adam Blair and Jeremy Smith to raise their intensity and maintain it for the duration of their stints in the middle. And they need to inject Luke at precisely the right time to take advantage of fatigue in the Aussie defensive line. If they do this, then the final will be a nail-biter, with the outcome hanging on a simple error, 50/50 ref’s call or missed tackle (last week Australia missed 44 tackles to the Kiwis’ 32).

But in what’s sure to be an emotional night for Lockyer in front of his home crowd for the last time in the green and gold, we’ll pump for a Kangaroos victory by eight points, with Brett Morris first try-scorer and Luke Lewis man of the match.

Match officials: Referee – Tony Archer (Australia); Sideline Officials – James Child (England) & Paul Holland (Australia); Video Referee – Russell Smith (Australia) – D Pakieto (NZ Observer).

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 6.30pm (Qld), live 7.30pm (NSW).

* Statistics: NRL Stats.