Wales v New Zealand
Sunday, 12am AEST
New Zealand will be looking to get their Four Nations title defence back on track with a big win over Wales this week. Beaten comprehensively by Australia in their Four Nations opener last Saturday, the Kiwis need a big win against the Welsh side to ensure they head into their final qualifying round clash with England next week full of confidence.
New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney has reacted to their 26-12 loss at Warrington by making some key changes with Simon Mannering given a well-earned break after playing all 31 games for the Warriors and New Zealand this year and Issac Luke and Kalifa Faifai Loa also rested.
Mannering’s place has been taken by prop Adam Blair, who is returning from the five-week suspension he received for his role in the infamous ‘Battle of Brookvale’ in Round 25, while Nathan Fien replaces Luke and Elijah Taylor makes his debut in place of Faifai Loa.
Kearney has also reshuffled his backline – Alex Glenn is slated to start in the centres with Gerard Beale moving to the wing.
Key for the Kiwis will be getting their defence right after conceding 68 points in their two clashes with Australia over the past fortnight. On both occasions they have started particularly poorly – trailing 22-0 after 20 minutes in Newcastle and conceding a worryingly soft try in just the third minute last week when Kangaroos prop Matt Scott crashed through.
Keeping Wales scoreless, or close to, will be a primary goal for Kearney and his men.
For Wales, the task doesn’t get any easier following last week’s 42-4 loss to England although they will be encouraged that they matched it with their British neighbours for the first 20 minutes and could easily have scored a few tries in that period had luck gone their way.
The Welsh squad is still young and their best days lie ahead but there is no doubt they will be better for the experience as they progress through this year’s Four Nations.
Exciting wingers Elliott Kear and Rhys Williams were particularly impressive against England last week, with Kear scoring a try and running for 161 metres. Back-rower Tyson Frizell, a Cronulla Sharks junior, was also a standout with 129 metres to his name.
Watch Out Wales: With the exception of captain Lee Briers, no Welsh player will have come up against a player the likes of Benji Marshall before. The New Zealand captain has been in scintillating form in 2011 – guiding the Wests Tigers into the finals and finishing the NRL season with 27 line-break assists, 24 try assists and 16 line-breaks. His ability to create something from nothing will severely test the Welsh defence.
Watch Out Kiwis: If Wales do manage to cause New Zealand any problems it will inevitably come off the back of the kicking game of captain Lee Briers. The veteran five-eighth has built a reputation as having one of the best long-kicking games in Super League over a career that has spanned a massive 355 games with Warrington. His skills were on show again against England last weekend; Briers kicked for 483 metres in his Four Nations debut – more than any other player in the opening week of play.
The History: Played 9; New Zealand 6, Wales 3. Contests between these two sides date back as far as 1908 and the Welsh have won three times since then; however it has been a long time between drinks for the Dragons. In fact, their biggest win against the Kiwis came way back in 1926 when they prevailed 34-8 at Taff Vale Park in Pontypridd. New Zealand thrashed Wales 58-18 in Cardiff in 2000 but it has been nine years now since the two sides last met.
Match Officials: Referee – Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – James Child & Tony Roby; Video Referee – Ben Thaler.
Conclusion: It’s hard to see anything but a big Kiwi win here against a Welsh side boasting just four Super League players and none from the NRL (although five are based in Australia). New Zealand have struggled against Australia in recent weeks but they are the World Cup and Four Nations champions and boast a squad full of talent – particularly in the halves with Benji Marshall and Kieran Foran running the show. Also, New Zealand have a history of getting better as a tournament progresses, as shown by their wins over Australia in major finals in 2008 and 2010 after losing to them earlier in the event.
Televised: Fox Sports 3 – Delayed, Sunday, 11am AEST.