The NRL season may be behind us but at least rugby league ‘tragics’ can look forward to the representative games throughout October and November.
A sensational Four Nations tournament awaits us in England and Wales, where the Kangaroos and Kiwis will take on the old enemy Lions plus the Dragons from Wales.
And don’t write off those plucky Welsh either… they’ll give a good account of themselves, much like their rugby union counterparts have done in the Rugby World Cup thus far.
But before all of that we have this weekend’s trans-Tasman showdown with new-look Australian and New Zealand sides locking horns in Newcastle. It should be a mighty clash (and a great precursor to the RWC semi-final between the same nations).
The Kangaroos have three debutantes and the Kiwis have five… will they be able to handle the heat of international competition?
Selectors for end-of-year games tend to use a ‘pick-the-players-in-form’ method more than at any other time during a season, although injuries have forced plenty of reshuffling for both squads.
The Australians always start these games as favourites – but the Kiwis are the World Champions and Four Nations champions, so you can’t discount them.
Which team is better on paper? Let’s delve deep into the stats…
(* denotes a player on debut.)
Billy Slater (Aus) v Kevin Locke* (NZ)
In 2011 Slater scored 12 tries from 24 games, made 17 line-breaks, 12 line-break assists, 16 try assists, 40 offloads, 143 tackle-breaks, averaged 143.9 metres, missed just 1.5 tackles a game and made 29 errors.
Locke scored six tries from 24 games, added 10 line-breaks, nine line-break assists, 10 try assists, 26 offloads, 102 tackle-breaks, averaged 128.8 metres, missed 2.2 tackles a game and made only 23 errors.
Verdict: As good as Locke played this year and as much as he deserves his Kiwi debut, he can’t compete with Billy Slater’s numbers.
Running Score: Australia 1, New Zealand 0
Akuila Uate* & Darius Boyd (Aus) v Kalifa Faifai Loa* & Jason Nightingale (NZ)
Uate’s figures read 23 games, 20 tries, 19 line-breaks, 152 tackle-breaks, 145.2 metres and 19 errors, while Boyd tallied 22 games, nine tries, 10 line-breaks, 109 tackle-breaks, 136.2 metres and just 17 errors.
Rookie Kalifa Faifai Loa played 22 games, notching 10 tries, 10 line-breaks, 68 tackle-breaks, 124.2 metres and 15 errors.
Nightingale played 25 games for 10 tries, nine line-breaks, 101 tackle-breaks, 127.2 metres and 13 errors.
Verdict: Uate was by far the top of the wing pile in 2011 when it came to the numbers so the question becomes whether either of the Kiwi wingers can outpoint Boyd. It’s a tough question to judge on figures alone as Boyd played fullback all year for the Dragons. Despite the feeling Nightingale deserves to earn a point (he was the Dragons’ player of the year) his numbers aren’t quite as good as his team-mate’s so he can’t be fully rewarded… we’ll give him half a point.
Running Score: Australia 2.5, New Zealand 0.5
Willie Tonga & Chris Lawrence (Aus) v Lewis Brown & Gerard Beale* (NZ)
Tonga totalled 20 games, 10 tries, eight line-breaks, four line-break assists, two try assists, 63 tackle-breaks, averaged 97.2 metres and missed two tackles a game.
Lawrence was restricted to nine games but tallied five tries, seven line-breaks, one line-break assist, one try assist, 24 tackle-breaks, averaged 91.4 metres and less than two missed tackles.
Brown completed 22 games for five tries, five line-breaks, three line-break assists, four try assists, 45 tackle-breaks, 105.4 metres and 2.1 missed tackles.
Beale played 27 games for 10 tries, 12 line-breaks, three line-break assists, three try assists, 63 tackle-breaks, 131.9 metres and 1.4 missed tackles.
Verdict: The reality is both teams don’t have their strongest centres on display but the talent is still high. The Kiwi boys have the edge in terms of metres and Beale made some breaks this year but Tonga’s figures do enough to get the Aussies at least back on par. Lawrence had an injury-interrupted season and despite a decent base to work from he just hasn’t played enough to get the nod. At the end of the day the two teams split the points via Beale and Tonga.
Running Score: Australia 3.5, New Zealand 1.5
Darren Lockyer (Aus) v Benji Marshall (NZ)
The battle of the captains – and perhaps the battle of the match. This is one of the last chances we will have to see these two battle against one another… and certainly the last on Aussie soil.
Lockyer’s last season featured 22 games, three tries, four line-breaks, 16 line-break assists, 26 try assists, 17 tackles, 2.4 average missed tackles, 294.8 average kick metres and 29 errors.
Marshall played 25 games with 13 tries, 16 line-breaks, 27 line-break assists, 24 try assists, an average 8.8 tackles plus three missed tackles, 246.3 average kick metres and 48 errors.
Verdict: How do you match up these two superstars? Marshall obviously trumps Locky in tries, line-breaks and line-break assists but the veteran defends more and with fewer issues, makes less mistakes and kicks further. So what should count for more? At the end of the day, with a heavy heart, the numbers probably go the way of Marshall. His attack is just so potent and he is only slightly behind on try assists.
Running Score: Australia 3.5, New Zealand 2.5
Johnathan Thurston (Aus) v Kieran Foran (NZ)
Another great match-up between a proven performer and an impressive young star on the rise. Thurston had another injury-interrupted year but still produced the goods, while Foran had a year to remember, culminating in a Premiership ring.
Thurston played 19 games, scored 10 tries with 11 line-breaks, 26 line-break assists, 22 try assists, 14.4 tackles, 4.3 missed tackles, 256.1 kick metres and 33 errors.
Foran played 26 games for eight tries, five line-breaks, 13 line-break assists, 17 try assists, 15.9 tackles, three misses, 167.5 kick metres and 24 errors.
Verdict: Foran might have a diamond-encrusted ring but Thurston still has him covered by the numbers.
Running Score: Australia 4.5, New Zealand 2.5
Paul Gallen & Matt Scott (Aus) v Russell Packer* & Sam McKendry (NZ)
Energetic Gallen played 20 games, making 48 offloads, 76 tackle-breaks, playing 76.6 minutes, contributing an average 183.5 metres, 25.8 tackles, 1.2 missed tackles, and a combined 18 errors.
Scott’s numbers were 22 games, 27 offloads, 44 tackle-breaks, 49.8 minutes, 115.2 metres, 25.1 tackles, 2.9 missed tackles, six errors.
Packer tallied 27 games, nine offloads, 22 tackle-breaks, 40.2 minutes, 83 metres, 27 tackles, 1.6 missed tackles, six errors.
McKendry contributed 23 games, 19 offloads, 24 tackle-breaks, 39.9 minutes, 85.7 metres, 21 tackles, 1.4 missed tackles and nine errors.
Verdict: We all know any stats match-up with Paul Gallen is a no-brainer… While he is playing ‘out of position’ at prop, you only have to hark back to Origin to remember he can be equally effective in tight. So the question is, can a Kiwi prop best Matt Scott? Short answer: no. The Aussie front row dominates the Kiwis.
Running Score: Australia 6.5, New Zealand 2.5
Cameron Smith (Aus) v Nathan Fien (NZ)
Is it even fair to match up these numbers? Let’s do it anyway…
Smith played 24 games, made four line-breaks, added nine line-break assists, nine try assists, 64 tackle-breaks, 76.5 average minutes, 70.8 average metres, 41.7 tackles a game, 2.1 missed tackles, 172.7 kick metres and just three errors all year.
Fien played 22 games, for two line-breaks, six line-break assists, eight try assists, 10 tackle-breaks, 60.8 minutes, 26 metres, 25.4 tackles, 2.7 missed tackles, 123.2 kick metres and 13 errors.
Verdict: Sorry Nathan – no disrespect but Smith is just a class above any other dummy-half in the game.
Running Score: Australia 7.5, New Zealand 2.5
Luke Lewis & Sam Thaiday (Aus) v Alex Glenn* & Simon Mannering (NZ)
Lewis played just 14 games for the following numbers: four tries, five line-breaks, 69 tackle-breaks, 73.6 minutes, 93.7 metres, 23.9 tackles, 3.8 missed tackles per game.
Ken Stephen Medal winner Thaiday played 21 games for three tries, four line-breaks, 47 tackle-breaks, 71.1 minutes, 109.4 metres, 31 tackles, 2.4 missed tackles.
Glenn contributed 27 games, nine tries, eight line-breaks, 75 tackle-breaks, 73.8 minutes, 85.7 metres, 28.4 tackles, 2.5 missed tackles.
Mannering played the maximum 28 games, five tries, four line-breaks, 37 tackle-breaks, 77.5 minutes, 81.6 metres, 31.7 tackles, 1.9 missed tackles.
Verdict: The Australian pair played less football this year and it enabled debutante Alex Glenn to get the top points amongst this battle… confirming he really does deserve his first Kiwi jersey. The attacking ability of the Aussie pair allows them to steal back a point ahead of the very dependable and tough Mannering.
Running Score: Australia 8.5, New Zealand 3.5
Anthony Watmough (Aus) v Jeremy Smith (NZ)
Watmough is fresh off another premiership win and has his chance to get back in the ‘good books’ with coach Tim Sheens.
He played 24 games, scored five tries with 29 offloads, 77 tackle-breaks, 75.9 minutes, 120.7 metres, 32 tackles, 2.9 missed tackles and 22 errors.
It’s been a while since hard man Smith had a hit-out. Still, he managed 20 games, scored four tries with nine offloads, 46 tackle-breaks, 64.5 minutes, 83.8 metres, 29.4 tackles, 3.4 missed tackles and just five errors.
Verdict: The score ends with another Aussie win, as Smith can’t get the jump on his rival despite not making many mistakes.
Final Score: Australia 9.5, New Zealand 3.5
So on paper (not surprisingly) the Kangaroos have it all over the Kiwis… (and the bench of Issac Luke, Fuifui Moimoi, Sika Manu and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves can’t make up the difference against Cooper Cronk, Keith Galloway*, David Shillington and Tony Williams*).
But there is no room for complacency in the Aussie camp, as recent results have shown the boys from across the Tasman deserve plenty of respect. They remain the kings of rugby league (despite the new improved world rankings giving Australia the top spot) and can certainly produce an ‘upset’.
What a great appetiser before the coming feast in England!