Australia v New Zealand preview

Australia v New Zealand
Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington
Saturday, 6am AEST

The most-anticipated Four Nations in the tournament’s three-year history kicks off this weekend with long-term rivals Australia and New Zealand going toe to toe in Warrington – yet it’s amazing how 80 minutes of football in Newcastle two weeks ago has changed the complexion of this Four Nations opener.

Australia’s 42-6 demolition of their trans-Tasman rivals has quickly nullified any bragging rights the Kiwis might be clinging to from last year’s Four Nations win, with coach Stephen Kearney forced to re-evaluate his options.

Certainly injuries appear to have hit New Zealand a lot harder than the Australians. The Kiwis are without a total of 12 players through injury and although much has been made of the quality of their crop of emerging talent they struggled to match the speed and brilliance of Australia two weeks ago. Perhaps it’s why the coach has largely stuck with the same squad.

Only two changes have been made to the side thrashed two weeks ago, with Ben Matulino replacing the suspended Russell Packer in the front row and Thomas Leuluai returning to the side for the first time since last year’s Four Nations final in place of Nathan Fien.

Leuluai will start from the bench with Issac Luke wearing the No.9 jersey. Sika Manu has also been named in the starting 13 to give the side more starch early, with Alex Glenn returning to the bench.

As usual, it will be up to New Zealand’s brilliant halves combination of Benji Marshall and Kieran Foran to spark the Kiwis into action after the pair were surprisingly quiet in Newcastle, while fullback Kevin Locke looms as a key weapon around the rucks following his impressive debut. Locke was one of the few Kiwis to impress in their Four Nations warm-up – scoring New Zealand’s only try and running for 161 metres despite Australia’s dominance.

Nevertheless, the Kangaroos are full of confidence and it is no surprise to see coach Tim Sheens stick with the same squad. The presence of their big four – Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith – remains a huge advantage and New Zealand will need to improve tenfold to prevent a repeat of the events in Newcastle.

Sheens has added three players – Greg Inglis, Beau Scott and Corey Parker – to an extended 20-man bench, although with Inglis still fighting to be fit in time it is unlikely he will be called upon.

Watch Out Kangaroos: Opportunities were scarce for the Kiwis in Newcastle but they have had plenty of success in recent years working the Australian forwards over with quick play-the-balls, relentless dummy-half scooting and utilising their speed around the rucks. Not surprisingly, the one try they scored two weeks ago came on the back of a break up the middle, a quick-play-the ball and the speed of Kevin Locke who split the defence before crossing alongside the posts.

Tellingly, New Zealand’s three leading yardage gainers in that Test were all outside backs with Locke running for 161 metres, Kalifa Faifai Loa 139 and Jason Nightingale 99.

Watch Out Kiwis: Australia destroyed the Kiwis on the right edge in Newcastle, with Darren Lockyer, Willie Tonga and Akuila Uate running riot early. Notably, the New Zealand left-side defence was caught out with embarrassing ease on at least three separate occasions and there is no doubt the Kangaroos will target that side again in Warrington. The primary offender was Warriors utility Lewis Brown, who was caught out badly by a Lockyer cut-out ball in the lead up to Australia’s first try, and twice beaten by his opposite number Willie Tonga for two more tries (including Uate’s second just a few minutes after his first). Kearney’s lack of centre options – particularly with fellow left centre Steve Matai unavailable through injury – will see Brown and Kalifa Faifai Loa again line-up on New Zealand’s left side this week.

Plays To Watch: The second-man play is a favourite of the Australians, who do it better than any other side on the planet. And although it is quite simple in theory, it has proven to be extremely effective in recent years, with fullback Billy Slater the key man for the Kangaroos. Scarily, Australia uses this play with just as much effect on both sides of the field – as opposed, for example, to St George Illawarra who heavily favour their left-hand side with a similar play. When attacking the line, the Kangaroos will fire a ball out to either Lockyer or Thurston at first receiver who will then miss a decoy runner to find Slater around the back. Slater can then slice through a gap himself or fire a pass out to his unmarked winger. Australia produced the perfect second-man play against the Kiwis two weeks ago, with Locker and Slater combining to send Darius Boyd over for a 13th-minute try, with Luke Lewis running a perfect decoy line.

See the Kangaroos' backline move in action against the Kiwis

The History: Played 121; Kangaroos 89, Kiwis 29, drawn 3. Australia’s dominance of New Zealand in all but the most important of games in recent seasons is hard to ignore. Sure, the Kiwis hold both the Four Nations and World Cup trophies, but their 42-6 loss two weeks ago means they have now won just three of their past 18 clashes against Australia. And New Zealand have not performed so well during the early rounds of tournaments, having lost 30-6 against the Kangaroos in the group stages of the 2008 World Cup and 34-20 in the 2010 Four Nations. The Kiwis do historically warm to the task over time, so expect a much closer contest than in Newcastle.

Last Time They Met: Australia belted the Kiwis 42-6 in a surprisingly one-sided contest at Newcastle’s Ausgrid Stadium a fortnight ago. The Kangaroos took advantage of a beautiful Sunday afternoon as they showed off their skills to jump out to a 22-0 lead after just 20 minutes through a double to debutante Akuila Uate and tries to Darius Boyd and Chris Lawrence. The Kangaroos led 26-0 at the break and after Kevin Locke finally opened New Zealand’s account early in the second half, Australia cruised home with three more tries for a 42-6 win. Uate, Boyd and Lawrence all finished with two tries while Keith Galloway scored a rare four-pointer as well in Darren Lockyer’s last game on Australian soil.

Conclusion: Australia were Four Nations favourites even before their huge 42-6 win over their main rivals a fortnight ago and that result has only strengthened that tag. So dominant were the Australians that last year’s Kiwi triumph in the decider is nothing but a distant memory. Certainly they need to get their act together quickly if they are to reverse that result this weekend – although their record in England isn’t great and the last time the Four Nations was played in England in 2009 the Kiwis were sent packing early as the hosts beat them to the final.

It would be a shock if Australia notched another cricket score this time around but on current form it’s difficult to imagine anything other than an Aussie win.

Match Officials: Referee – Phil Bentham; Sideline Officials – James Child & Paul Holland; Video Referee – Ben Thaler.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live, Saturday, 5.45am; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 2.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats