Australia v New Zealand preview

Australia Kangaroos v New Zealand Kiwis
Eden Park, Auckland
Friday 8.15pm (NZ time)

Four Nations champions Australia dive into the post-Darren Lockyer era determined to maintain their dominant record over their Trans-Tasman rivals who have not won a one-off, mid-season Test against the Kangaroos since 1998.

New Zealand fans have their fingers crossed an injection of youth will do the trick – coach Stephen Kearney and his selectors have placed their faith in four new faces – while the Aussies have lit the fuse on a potentially explosive encounter by drafting Kiwi-born Cowboy James Tamou into the squad to make his debut against his countrymen after the prop pledged his allegiance to the green and gold.

Nine players remain from the Kangaroos side that beat the Kiwis 20-10 in last year’s corresponding Anzac Test, with two others returning after representing during their successful Four Nations campaign. Aside from Tamou’s controversial inclusion there are few surprises: Cameron Smith takes over the reins as captain; Johnathan Thurston will wear the No.6 jersey after his successful transition to five-eighth at club level; Cooper Cronk claims the No.7 jersey with Daly Cherry-Evans warming the pine; and Paul Gallen will start at prop – paving the way for Rabbitohs powerhouse Dave Taylor to start in the second row.

Meanwhile New Zealand coach Kearney has invested in some new blood, with Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson, Broncos fullback Josh Hoffman and Storm prop Jesse Bromwich (interchange) all set to make their international debuts.

It’s a huge game for Cameron Smith and Simon Mannering, with each racking up their 29th game in their country’s colours. Smith overtakes Arthur Beetson and Noel Kelly in the running order for most games for the Kangaroos, joining Tom Raudonikis, while Mannering joins Kiwi legends including Mark Graham and Olsen Filipaina.

New Zealand face a tough task even allowing for their home advantage – they’ve won just five of their past 30 Tests against the Kangaroos and have lost both Tests played at Eden Park.  

Watch Out Kangaroos: The brilliance of new halves combination Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall will keep the Kangaroos’ edge defenders guessing. The pair are among the most elusive and deceptive runners in the game and they will look to generate confusion through their energy and at-times unpredictable styles. Free-running halfback Johnson ranks third in the NRL for line-breaks (6) and fourth for try assists (8) while Marshall ranks second for try assists (11) and third for line-break assists (8 – all from passes). In particular Johnson will relish linking with noted finishers Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Manu Vatuvei and Jason Nightingale while Marshall will deploy his no-look short passes to hard-running forwards like Wests Tigers team-mate Adam Blair when in striking range of the Kangaroos’ try line.  

The Australians will need to bring their best kicking games with them or else Josh Hoffman will create migraines: the Broncos’ fullback leads the NRL for kick-return metres with a whopping 632 (or 52 a game).

Danger Sign: Issac Luke will keep the Aussies on the back foot through his relentless dummy-half running. Luke made seven ruck scoots last time they met and he currently leads the NRL for dummy-half runs with 82 – 18 more than Cameron Smith – as well as dummy-half line-breaks (3). If Luke gets on a roll just watch Marshall and Johnson take charge and get the ball quickly to the edges to exploit any disjointedness in the Kangaroos’ defence.

Watch Out Kiwis: The Storm’s ‘big three’ of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk run on together in the green and gold for the first time – throw in the attacking genius of Johnathan Thurston and it’s clear the Kiwis will have their work cut out in defence all night. Slater leads the NRL for line busts (8) and tries scored (9) but is equally dangerous setting up supports, ranking fifth for line-break assists (7). There’s no better creator of scoring opportunities at the moment than Cronk who leads all-comers with 14 try assists so far in 2012. Smith leads all hookers for involvement, with a competition-high 773 receives. And Thurston ranks No.1 for line-break assists (11).

Meanwhile, just one goal or try will see ‘JT’ overtake Andrew Johns and occupy sole third position for the third-most points scored for Australia (226).

The other obvious threat is the Kangaroos’ engine room and the huge metres they’ll grind out. Paul Gallen makes the most metres in the NRL each week (218) while debutant Tamou ranks seventh with 143. Gallen’s offloads will need to be contained too – he’s averaging a league-high four a game.

Danger Sign: Now with more room at five-eighth, look for Thurston to scout wider and in particular link with Justin Hodges and Akuila Uate on the right side of the field, aiming to exploit Manu Vatuvei who has missed the most tackles by any winger in the NRL (22).

Dave Taylor v Frank Pritchard: Talk about when worlds collide! The 122-kilogram ‘Coal Train’ Taylor is playing his first top-level game in the green and gold having represented in the PM’s XIII two years ago; he has been devastating in the NRL so far this season, leading all second-rowers for tries (4) and ranking third in tackle breaks (19). Meanwhile 112-kilogram Bulldogs enforcer Pritchard has returned to the form that saw him rated one of the best ball-playing back-rowers in the game a few years back – he ranks third for offloads (10) and leads his position for try assists (3). Whichever player pulls off the big hit or the big play when it counts will lift their team dramatically.

Where It Will Be Won: They’ll put points on the scoreboard – but can the Kiwis’ defence hold out the Aussies when it counts? The Kiwis missed 39 tackles last time the sides met and this team includes six members of the Warriors and Wests Tigers NRL teams that are currently ranked the worst and second worst for missed tackles in the Telstra Premiership (with 37 and 35 a game respectively).  

The History: Played 122; Kangaroos 90, Kiwis 29, drawn 3. New Zealand may be the World Champions but they have a dismal record against Australia in recent years, winning just three of their past 19 clashes. The last time New Zealand defeated Australia in a mid-season Test was back in 1998 when they saluted 22-16 at North Harbour Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: Australia defeated New Zealand 26-12 in the opening pool match of last year’s Four Nations series in Warrington.

Australia got off to a flying start when prop Matthew Scott plunged over in just the second minute before further tries to Tony Williams (28th minute) and Johnathan Thurston (37th minute) saw the Kangaroos head to the halftime break with a commanding 16-nil lead.

The Kiwis threw caution to the wind early in the second half, with tries to Jason Nightingale and Kalifa Faifai Loa bridging the gap to just four points with 23 minutes left to play. However, a Darius Boyd try gave Australia breathing space in the 64th minute, while Akuila Uate iced their cake when he scored four minutes from fulltime.

Handling and errors hampered the Kiwi cause: they completed just 67 per cent of their sets compared to the Kangaroos who registered a sound 79 per cent with the ball in hand.

The decisive win in the UK came just two weeks after the green-and-gold walloped the black-and-white 42-6 at Hunter Stadium a fortnight after the 2012 NRL Grand Final.

Match Officials: Referee – Richard Silverwood (GB); Sideline Officials – Aaron Kesha (NZ) & Jeff Younis (Aus); Video Referee – David Pakieto (NZ).

The Way We See It: The Kiwis’ poor record in one-off Tests makes it hard to warm to their chances – although the Aussies will need to focus for the full 80 to quash the flurries of attack Benji Marshall is certain to orchestrate at various stages. The Tamou factor will play into the hands of the home side but whether or not it will be enough to fuel an upset remains to be seen. Australia by eight points.  

Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats