Australia v New Zealand
Saturday 6.30pm (AEST), 7.30pm (ADST)
The term 'new look' is an understatement when you run the rule over the Australian and New Zealand teams booked in to battle this Saturday night at Suncorp Stadium.
The Kangaroos look almost unrecognisable from their last outing with a host of big-name omissions. In fact, there are no less than five debutants running out in the green and gold.
While three of these men – Roosters duo Aidan Guerra and Daniel Tupou, and Tigers prop Aaron Woods – have already plied their trade in the State of Origin cauldron, Tim Sheens has also been forced to blood Rabbitohs centre Dylan Walker and Penrith winger Josh Mansour, who are untried in the representative arena beyond the annual City v Country fixture.
Along with all the casualties, and excluding the extended bench of Boyd Cordner, David Klemmer and Sione Mata'utia, New South Wales holds the balance of power in the Test team for the first time in a fixture against the Kiwis since the 2010 Trans-Tasman Test with nine representatives ahead of eight for Queensland.
With that, only six men who played in the early year Trans-Tasman Test (Greg Bird, Daly Cherry-Evans, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis, Corey Parker and skipper Cameron Smith) will line up for the Kangaroos in this fixture, and this is where New Zealand's advantage lies.
Outside of debutant Jason Taumalolo and experienced campaigners in Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Kieran Foran, Thomas Leuluai and Lewis Brown, the Kiwis team is much the same as their early season battle. A second debutant in Penrith rookie Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was named but has since withdrawn with a broken foot, with his spot most likely to be taken by St George Illawarra utility back Gerard Beale.
While Stephen Kearney's squad back in May raised plenty of eyebrows in rugby league circles after naming five men to debut, the Kiwis almost caused one of the great boilovers but were run down by the 'Roos in the final 20 minutes.
The Kiwis' confidence will be boosted in the knowledge they can roll with the big boys and a win here – knowing they have suspended hooker Issac Luke to come back in week two of the tournament – would boost it that much more.
Watch out Australia: It would be remiss of us not to point out the fantastic 2014 season Warriors and Kiwis captain Simon Mannering has had thus far. An NRL Fantasy favourite, Mannering started 2014 slowly before building into top form, finishing with nine tries and averaging 29.6 tackles and 92.5 metres per game. In a season where he made his 200th NRL appearance, Mannering now leads a New Zealand team that should be brimming with confidence after their solid effort earlier this year.
The Kiwis' experience may well prove to be the difference over the Kangaroos come Saturday. While their combined 221 Test caps in the World Cup final last year saw them flogged 34-2, a meagre 139 appearances in May's side almost saw the Kiwis prevail. It is now about finding the right blend of youth and experience. 196 Tests worth of experience will line up against Australia this weekend. Only five men (Mannering, Foran, Shaun Johnson, Dean Whare and Jesse Bromwich) will return from their defeated World Cup team to face the music.
Watch Out New Zealand: 'Experience' is one of the buzzwords leading into this one. Five debutants for the Kangaroos – the same amount the Kiwis used in May's Trans-Tasman Test. You can bet the Kangaroos will be an exhilarated bunch if a little raw when it comes to their combinations. Despite only having 157 collective Tests, their spine still very much looks the goods. Even despite missing experienced duo Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater, that spine makes up almost two-thirds of the team's experience. Inglis (29 Tests) Cherry-Evans (seven), Cronk (22) and Smith (38) are notorious for their game breaking plays – just ask New Zealand teams of years past.
Plays to Watch: Australia will surely take one from the Melbourne Storm's playbook. While Slater is obviously missing, Cronk and Smith should have zero problems in involving former teammate Inglis in the Storm's outside, inside move. A basic play, sure, but its effectiveness is amazing. Cronk will usually stand in line with the opposition's B defender, or two men off the ruck. Smith, at dummy-half, will make a run towards Cronk's side throwing it to his halfback. Inglis, who should be running deep, will be given the ball back inside between the two attackers which usually means he'll find space downfield or even score.
New Zealand may utilise another Melbournian in back-rower Kevin Proctor in a similar way to how he is used at the Storm as well. Proctor is an edge back-rower and when the Kiwi front-rowers aren't busting down the middle, Proctor and back-row partner Mannering will be used out wide in an attempt to catch out Australia's inexperienced backs.
Where It Will Be Won: The make-up of each team's defensive shape will win this one. Whether each team chooses to be compressed or mark up in defence could very well prove the difference. Australia's compressed defensive makeup may prove problematic considering their inexperience in the outside backs in the international arena. The Kiwis' attempts to match it one-on-one marking up against the Roos forwards may also work against them. The country that minimises their defensive weaknesses will go a long way towards giving themselves a chance to win it with ball in hand.
The History: Played 127; Australia 95, New Zealand 29, drawn 3. It has been an Olympics-esque length of time between drinks for the Kiwis when it comes to wins over Australia. New Zealand's last victory over the Kangaroos came in the form a 16-12 scoreline in the final of the 2010 Four Nations. The Kangaroos have since won their past eight games including 42-6, 34-2 and 32-12 floggings. Since winning the 2005 Tri Nations, the Kiwis have struggled badly with just two wins from 22 meetings. The fact those two wins happened to be in the 2008 World Cup final and 2010 Four Nations final shouldn't be discounted, however.
Match Officials: Referee – Phil Bentham; Touch Judges – Robert Hicks & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Ian Smith.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: This is almost too hard to predict. The massive disparity in betting markets is surprising given the mass changes to the Australian team. The young Kiwis will be better off for the run they had in May. In saying that, Australia's spine remains formidable. This should be close, but we'll stick with Australia to win by two points.