Australia v New Zealand
The mind games are well underway with both sides labelling their rivals pre-match favourites but the truth is that Sunday’s Test between Australia and New Zealand – the second leg in this year’s Bill Kelly Cup series – looms as one of the most fascinating contests in years.
Let’s set the scene. On the surface at least, Australia look to well and truly have New Zealand’s measure – they’ve dominated the trans-Tasman rivalry for the best part of two decades and have lost just three of their past 17 games against the Kiwis. Yet despite boasting such a remarkable statistic, the Australian trophy cabinet sits gathering dust. Thanks to wins in the 2008 World Cup final and last year’s Four Nations decider, New Zealand currently hold rugby league’s two major international trophies – and another successful campaign over the coming month would surely have them overtake the Kangaroos as the greatest rugby league nation in the world.
So, there is plenty at stake. The Kiwis will rely heavily on their key playmakers to get the job done, with an injury crisis forcing coach Stephen Kearney to blood five debutantes – fullback Kevin Locke, centre Gerard Beale, winger Kalifa Faifai Loa, prop Russell Packer and back-rower Alex Glenn. It’s a testament to the country’s rapidly growing stocks that they are still able to bring in such exciting youngsters after having 12 players ruled out through injury.
To a certain extent, the Kiwis head into this clash somewhat of an unknown quantity – they’re well down on experience but the superb form of Locke and Beale in particular this season suggest their more than ready to take the step up to the next level.
Either way, they remain strong in the halves and it is the combination of premiership-winning halfback Kieran Foran and brilliant captain Benji Marshall that Australia will be most worried about.
Australia look a little more steady with their big four of Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith all on board and ready to make amends for the disappointments of the past few years. Lockyer in particular will be the focus of plenty of attention, with the Kiwis certain to test out his fitness after his NRL career came to a premature end last month due to a fractured cheekbone. Nevertheless, the Aussies will be keen to ensure his final game on Australian soil ends with victory.
Injury hasn’t escaped the home side either. Among those unavailable this week are Petero Civoniceva, Jarryd Hayne, Kurt Gidley, Justin Hodges, Dave Taylor and brothers Brett and Glenn Stewart (the latter due to personal issues). Civoniceva’s absence is particularly interesting with coach Tim Sheens opting for only three specialist front-rowers – Matthew Scott, David Shillington and Keith Galloway – and throwing NSW captain Paul Gallen in alongside them. The idea is to nullify New Zealand’s little men who are sure to try and tire the big Aussie props with relentless running up the middle.
Although this match has significance in its own right, its real value is as a Four Nations trial with neither side wanting to give the other too much ground before they fly to England next week. It looms as another thriller.
Watch Out Kangaroos: New Zealand have enjoyed plenty of success in recent times working Australia over around the rucks and the make-up of their squad suggests that Sunday will be no different. In many ways, they are a carbon copy of the Warriors, with the unique skills of Benji Marshall thrown in for good measure.
Watch for Kevin Locke, Kalifa Faifai Loa and Jason Nightingale to run from dummy-half relentlessly while the Kiwis’ versatile forwards – the likes of Jeremy Smith and Alex Glenn – will love hitting the inside ball.
Watch Out Kiwis: New Zealand have typically been renowned for the daunting size of their forward pack but this time it is Australia that have a secret weapon ready to wreak havoc – Tony Williams. Weighing in at a monstrous 118kg, Manly’s premiership star has earned a Kangaroos debut and will come off the bench for the first time on Sunday, presumably late in the first half. It is a role that should perfectly suit Williams, with his fresh legs providing plenty of impact. The 22-year-old came of age in 2011 with 67 tackle-breaks for the Sea Eagles.
Plays To Watch: The Billy Slater factor will have a huge impact on this Test match. The Dally M medallist has been in fine form in 2011 – ranking fourth for total metres gained with 3454, fourth for line-breaks with 17, second for tackle-breaks with 143 and third for kick-return metres with 1421. However, it is his presence on the right edge where he loves to chime into the backline that looms as New Zealand’s greatest threat. Slater will typically run around behind a decoy runner and receive the football in a second-man play where he can either slice through a gap or throw a pass to one of his two outside men.
The threat is magnified this Sunday because the Kiwis are missing a number of their first-choice left-side defenders, including Steve Matai, Frank Pritchard and Manu Vatuvei.
The History: Played 120; Kangaroos 88, Kiwis 29, drawn 3. The history books suggest that Australia hold the edge this Sunday. Aside from losing only three of their past 17 against the Kiwis, they also typically begin their end-of-season tours well. In 2008, Australia thrashed their rivals 30-6 in the group stages before losing the final 34-20, while in last year’s Four Nations the Kangaroos prevailed 34-20 in their first meeting before again losing the final 16-12. Australia have scored 20 points or more in seven of their past nine encounters and it was only four years ago that they recorded their biggest ever win with a 58-0 thrashing of the Kiwis in Wellington.
Last Time They Met: Australia won 20-10 in May, with Billy Slater crossing for a double. The match was originally scheduled for Christchurch in New Zealand but the tragic earthquakes that rocked the city in February saw it moved to Skilled Park on the Gold Coast. The Kangaroos held a narrow 10-6 lead at halftime but tries to Slater and Jamal Idris saw them build a match-winning 20-6 lead with nine minutes remaining. Australia edged the possession 51 per cent to 49 per cent but dominated up front, running for 1546 metres to New Zealand’s 1286. Idris ran for 152 metres with Cameron Smith notching a massive 60 tackles, while for New Zealand centres Lewis Brown and Shaun Kenny-Dowall impressed running for 127 and 120 metres respectively.
Conclusion: This match is very much a case of Australia’s old guard facing off against New Zealand’s new generation. For that reason alone the Kangaroos will be determined to claim victory – Darren Lockyer’s retirement in the coming weeks signals the end of an era and it’s unlikely the hosts will have it so good again anytime soon.
Despite their own injury concerns, Australia appear to be better positioned to overcome their casualty ward, while New Zealand have taken the opportunity to experiment. With that in mind it’s difficult to tip anything but a Kangaroos victory – although with Benji Marshall leading the way, anything is possible.
Match Officials: Referee – Phil Bentham (Eng); Sideline Officials – Paul Holland (Aus) & Henry Perenara (Aus); Video Referees – Russell Smith (Aus) & Dave Pakieto (NZ)
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.