Australia v New Zealand
Skilled Park, Gold Coast
State of Origin joins the international arena? Not quite, although the 12 Queenslanders in the Australian 17 is a record-equalling number – and there would have been a new benchmark of 13 had Raider David Shillington not withdrawn with injury.
As a result, Darren Lockyer is surrounded by plenty of familiar faces as he plays his 55th Test (equalling New Zealand legend Ruben Wiki) and his last on Queensland soil.
Although hotly contested, this game will have more than a touch of the sprit of friendship about it, having been transferred from original venue AMI Park in Christchurch after the February earthquake. Plus, victims of the Queensland floods will be remembered as well – in fact in a wonderful gesture the government and Jetstar are flying 250 people from both regions to cheer on their respective national sides.
Comradeship aside, the World Cup and Four Nations Champion Kiwis will be desperate to register their first ever win in an early season one-off (Anzac) Test on Australian soil. Despite injuries to Manu Vatuvei and Roy Asotasi, they field an imposing outfit – even able to leave out the likes of Steve Matai and Frank Pritchard!
After missing last year’s Four Nations with injury Manly five-eighth Kieran Foran is back in the No.7 jersey he wore in the corresponding game last year, when the black-and-whites were narrow 16-12 losers. His partnership with skipper Benji Marshall, and their battle with the Australian halves Johnathan Thurston and captain Lockyer, will have a huge bearing on the outcome.
Also, the Kiwis boast a much stronger ruck presence than the one they employed to win the Four Nations in November; on that occasion Nathan Fien played halfback, with UK-based Thomas Leuluai starting at hooker and Issac Luke coming off the bench. For this game Dragons premiership-winning hooker Fien starts in the No.9, with Luke warming the pine.
Meanwhile Simon Mannering retains the centre role he played in the Four Nations, beating off the challenge of Matai, while Melbourne youngster Matt Duffie – who played his junior football in Christchurch – is the sole Kiwi debutant on the wing.
The Aussies have named a powerful forward pack and included Cronulla enforcer Kade Snowden on debut, while out wide Broncos flyer Jharal Yow Yeh makes his debut on the wing. Bulldogs centre Jamal Idris also makes his first appearance in the green and gold, coming off the bench.
Watch Out Kangaroos: The Australians will still be having nightmares about Marshall’s engineering of their stunning victory in last year’s Four Nations Final. The No.6 set up all three Kiwi tries, with a six tackle-breaks, a line-break and two offloads.
Marshall will be keen to link with Shaun Kenny-Dowall; although the Roosters’ centre has been a little quiet in 2011 he lifts when donning the Kiwi jersey and made a game-high seven tackle busts and game-high two line-breaks the last time these sides met.
Foran is another who could shine; if the Kangaroos focus too much on Marshall, Foran’s ball-playing can hurt the home side – especially close to the tryline where he is a magician at putting runners through holes.
Danger Sign: If Kenny-Dowall isn’t adequately contained on the right edge and is allowed to slip the ball to winger Jason Nightingale, the Kiwis will be a real threat out wide.
Watch Out Kiwis: Where do you start? Let’s focus on Yow Yeh’s selection. While some questioned why he got the nod ahead of Jarryd Hayne and NRL try-scoring machine Akuila Uate it should be remembered Yow Yeh plays on the right wing at the Broncos – outside right-edge centre Justin Hodges and playmaker Darren Lockyer. It’s a smart move by the selectors.
Hodges’ return will be telling. After missing all of last season with an Achilles tendon injury he only made it back onto the park in Round 3 – since then he’s been in stunning form, breaking the line 22 times in just five games for the Broncos.
In closer, Johnathan Thurston will relish playing behind a solid forward pack. In club football so far he leads the NRL for line-break assists (16) and try assists (10). The Kiwis haven’t squared off against Thurston since 2009 so they may be a little rusty to his tricks and his show-and-go could get quite a work-out.
Danger Sign: If Thurston takes on the Kiwi defensive line early and often, and manages to crack it even once in the opening 15 minutes, it could be a long night for the men in the black jerseys.
Where It Will Be Won: It doesn’t matter how brilliant both sides’ backs are, international games are won first and foremost in the forwards.
The Aussies have the edge in this department in Sharks lock Paul Gallen, who is currently leading the NRL for total metres and average metres gained with 1453 and a whopping 182 respectively. Although he’s been suffering from a mild case of the flu during the week, expect him to push harder to beat the modest 113 metres from 14 runs he was confined to last November.
After controversially dropping himself from the Four Nations Final last year, Petero Civoniceva has reasserted his position as a premier prop this year, averaging 129 metres, with Kade Snowden not far behind on 121 metres.
The Kiwis will be well served by Sam Rapira, who didn’t play the Four Nations for family reasons – in last year’s one-off Test he was their best, making 114 metres and 36 tackles.
Another injury casualty last year, Fuifui Moimoi, will make his presence felt; the prop is making good metres at the Eels this year (129).
The History: Played 119, Australia 87, New Zealand 29, drawn 3. The Kangaroos have won 11 of the past 14 games between the nations, with one draw. They’ve also won six of the past eight – but the Kiwis won the big ones including the 2008 World Cup Final and last year’s Four Nations Final.
Conclusion: Three of the past four games between these sides have been close (16-12, 12-8, 20-all) with only the Kangaroos’ 34-20 win at Eden Park in the Four Nations Pool game a blowout.
The Kiwis will be looking to show they are deserving of the silverware they’ve accrued in recent times, and the passion surrounding the natural disaster in Christchurch will fuel them greatly.
So too the Kangaroos who will be feeding off the emotion of the floods.
It all adds up to one of the best clashes between these sides in recent memory. Australia must rank as the favourite – but the Kiwis are capable of not just winning, but winning big.
Match Officials: Referee – Richard Silverwood (England); Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall (Aus) & Daniel Caddy (NZ); Video Refs – Steve Clark (Aus) & David Pakieto (NZ).
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
Statistics: NRL Stats.