The game that signifies the launch of rugby league’s representative season, the Anzac Test, has traditionally proven to be a happy hunting ground for the Australians and they again look hard to stop ahead of Friday night’s clash at Canberra Stadium.
With the World Cup coming up in England and Wales at the end of the year, this clash no doubt represents an opportunity for reigning champions New Zealand to ramp up preparations for their title defence but those immediate plans have suffered a significant hit with key trio Benji Marshall, Sonny Bill Williams and Jeremy Smith all ruled out through suspension and injury.
The result is not only the absence of two of New Zealand’s main strike players but a combined 57 Tests’ worth of experience.
By comparison, the entire Kiwi backline that has been named for Friday’s Test boast a total of 56 Test matches between them (wingers Sam Perrett and Jason Nightingale having played 36 of those) while from 1-7 Australia has played 110.
Ironically, if there is one silver lining it is that Simon Mannering will now captain New Zealand for the first time without having to worry about the spectre of the man that was dumped from the role a few months back, Marshall, casting his shadow. Still, there is no doubt the Kiwis would rather Marshall was there.
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New Zealand’s great strength in this match is their forward pack. As intimidating as ever, they are led up front by in-form Sydney Roosters enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Melbourne prop Jesse Bromwich, while Sam McKendry, Ben Matulino and Alex Glenn make an imposing trio off the bench.
Their big challenge though is matching an Australian side suffering no such injury or suspension woes. Front and centre of Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney’s mind will be the presence of Australia’s ‘big four’ – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston. The quartet have long enjoyed a successful combination for both Queensland and Australia and while the Kiwis will look wide to see the likes of relatively untested youngsters Dean Whare and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Australia’s playmakers boast veterans Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges on their outside.
It is now 15 years since New Zealand managed a win over Australia in this Anzac Test with a 22-16 win at Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium in 1998 their last enjoyment. It doesn’t bode well for a side that typically performs better over the course of a full tournament, but of course records are made to be broken and given the adversity they face, what a famous win this would be for the men in black and white.
Watch Out Kangaroos: Benji Marshall might not be there but when it comes to playing to their strengths this could actually play into New Zealand’s hands. While trying to “out-football” Australia is a tough ask, the presence of Issac Luke and Shaun Johnson should provide a hint as to how the Kiwis will play it.
Expect the visitors to be direct. Luke is renowned for his dummy-half running, having already done so 44 times for South Sydney over the opening six rounds of the NRL season, and he will look to put Australia on the back foot this weekend. If he can do so, watch for halves Kieran Foran and more so Johnson to use their speed through the middle to break the Kangaroos open.
Watch Out Kiwis: Having missed last October’s 18-10 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium, Justin Hodges is back alongside Greg Inglis in the centres for Australia, reuniting one of the most fearsome duos ever to lace on a boot for the green and gold.
Both match-winners in their own right, Hodges and Inglis are the sort of players that strike fear into their opposite numbers with their combination of speed and brute strength. Hodges has been in fine form for the Broncos in 2013 with his big right-foot step a feature of his game, while Inglis has been brilliant at fullback for the Rabbitohs with three tries, five line-breaks, 41 tackle-breaks (the most in the NRL) and an average 180 metres per game. Watch out Kiwis indeed.
Plays To Watch: The Melbourne Storm has benefited from the partnership between key trio Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater and rest assured Tim Sheens’ men will take advantage of it. Watch for the classic inside-ball play. If Smith spots a slightly bemused defensive line the ball will head right to Cronk who will quickly throw an inside ball to Slater steaming through the middle and through a tired defensive line.
Key Match-Up: Cameron Smith v Issac Luke. No two players control the destiny of their respective sides like these two. Smith is destined to go down as one of the all-time greats with his ability to control the tempo of a game while Luke’s preference for running from dummy-half is New Zealand’s greatest asset and could cause Australia plenty of problems.
Where It Will Be Won: New Zealand’s strength is their forward pack and this is where they need to get over the top of the Australians. The Kiwis lack experience out wide but their pack is as sizeable and intimidating as expected. On raw talent it is hard to match the Aussie backline but if New Zealand can match Australia up front they will be right in this one.
The Last Time They Met: Australia escaped with a narrow 18-10 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium last October after a grinding affair highlighted by the brilliant performances of front-row duo Matthew Scott and James Tamou.
Scott was named the official man of the match after clocking 184 metres while Tamou was players’ player, having overcome the controversy over his decision earlier in the year to choose Australia over New Zealand to score a spectacular first-half try.
But it didn’t come easy, with the Kiwis rocketing out of the gates with a clever try to Issac Luke in the sixth minute. It didn’t take long for Australia to hit back with captain Cameron Smith matching the efforts of his opposite number before Tamou gave Australia the lead with a bust and sidestep that would have made Justin Hodges proud.
Ahead 10-6, it looked as if the Kangaroos were about to break the game wide open – until the Kiwis put up a speculative bomb in the 38th minute which fell into the hands of Sam Perrett. The Canterbury winger then offloaded to Dean Whare who sent Gerard Beale on his way to make it 10-all at the break.
The second half was a brutal affair, with both sides defending their lines valiantly, prompting Johnathan Thurston to take the option of a penalty goal after 62 minutes for the Kangaroos to edge back ahead 12-10. Darius Boyd then sealed victory for the home side with a stunning long-range effort from a superb Paul Gallen pass to make it 18-10 with nine minutes remaining.
The scoreline didn’t accurately reflect the dominance of Australia, who ran for 1523 metres to just 1119 and completed 78 per cent of their sets to New Zealand’s 65 per cent.
Besides Scott and Tamou, Gallen impressed for the Kangaroos with 173 metres and 35 tackles, while Luke made a game-high 46 tackles for New Zealand.
The History: Played 124; Kangaroos 92, 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 21 clashes.
Match Officials: Referee – Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Shane Rehm & Russell Turner; Video Referee – Steve Clark & Henry Perenara; Standby Referee – Shayne Hayne.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7:30pm.
The Way We See It: Missing three of their key players, it is difficult to imagine the Kiwis beating an Australian side that boasts the advantage of well-established combinations, a match on home soil and history on their side. This has always been a tough game for New Zealand, who appear to prefer the opportunity that a tournament presents to gradually find their best form, to win and it will take a mighty performance to turn that trend around this week. Kangaroos by 12 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.