New Zealand v Toa Samoa
Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Saturday 4pm (local time), 2pm (AEDT)
Just as the naysayers outside of the Sunshine State raised their pitchforks and asked what could possibly have topped a 43-year-old NRL fairytale that included a John Sattler-esque hero, out stepped the Kiwis with a well-timed rugby league curveball.
And in case anyone is keeping score, that’s two strikes now (for the Kangaroos). A third and it’d be their longest walk back to the home dugout without a finals appearance in 60 years.
But Saturday is about these upstart New Zealanders, a learned bunch who, in less than a week, could be the first nation into the Four Nations final with another dominant victory.
And should they do that, backing up their 30-12 romp over the Australians last Saturday, the host nation will deservedly enter the final fortnight of the campaign with the kind of swagger normally associated from the Lord of the Rings Republic in their 15-man code.
Standing in their way are tournament underdogs Toa Samoa, a wildcard nation who proved they had a head-turning googly of their own when they went within a video refereeing decision of upsetting England’s land of giants in last week’s tournament-opener.
They might not have the experience, depth or class of rugby league’s ‘big three’, but their rapid rise over the past 12 months under coach Matt Parish has been a breath of fresh air for the international game.
Even with excitement machine Anthony Milford locked out of the blue jumper on a technicality, RLIF’s seventh-ranked nation pushed the only side in the tournament from the northern hemisphere right up until the final buzzer courtesy of their own unique brash and open power game.
Still, their line-up gets an added boost this Saturday with Canterbury-Bankstown’s grand final centre Tim Lafai hoping to celebrate last week’s wedding nuptials with a win for his country, replacing unlucky three-quarter Ricky Leutele.
Parish also responded to Pita Godinet’s big-men defying double off the bench by swapping jumpers with Michael Sio, as does try-scorer Isaac Liu and Sam Tagatese.
Stephen Kearney also gets troops back this week in the form of Issac Luke, a now-healthy Manu Vatuvei, who comes in for Gerard Beale. Kearney’s only other change sees forward Suaia Matagi – who faced off against his fellow countrymen for the Samoans in the World Cup last year – replacing Greg Eastwood on the bench.
Watch out New Zealand: It wasn’t quite well-documented in the aftermath, but in case anyone was wondering what Samoan lock Josh McGuire thought of his omission from the prop-starved Kangaroos squad, he said it all with these numbers: 14 runs, 110 metres, a game-high 42 tackles, and two tackle busts that led to two try assists. His coach said this tournament was the perfect opportunity for players to prove their worth as a rep player. Consider McGuire’s prospects proven.
Watch out Samoa: You don’t think Issac Luke has a bone to pick with the rugby league gods this weekend? Denied a premiership spot and a precious Test against the Kangaroos (suspended), the veteran Kiwi let all his emotions out when he led the Kiwi haka last Saturday. Expect the stone-strong dummy-half to hold this game by the scruff of its neck and 'bully' it around when and where he wants.
Plays to Watch: Only two teams hit double figures in offloads last week, and they aren’t the ones still fumbling around in Melbourne. Premier prop Jesse Bromwich led the Kiwis with four, while Adam Blair and Martin Taupau had a couple each. For the Samoans, their back three of Tim Simona, Daniel Vidot and Antonio Winterstein got their sets off with some enterprising play with six handoffs between them.
Where It Will Be Won: Samoa’s goal line defence. At some stage, the Samoans are going to realise that they won’t be able to rely on momentum changes and outscoring opponents on the run. The Kiwis have been learning for a long time what it takes to play with patience at this level and it’s a lesson the Samoans copped the hard way last week. Applying it from the notebook to the playing field is tougher than it looks, however. Moreso when it’s in your opposition’s backyard.
The History: Played 2; New Zealand 2, Samoa 0. The first was a 50-6 shellacking in Auckland in 2010, when Vatuvei and Shaun Kenny-Dowall bagged four between them. And then there was last year’s epic group-opener, a 42-24 result that was in the balance until the 73rd minute, a match best remembered for Sonny Bill Williams’ jaw-dropping brain fart over the try line. The fixture in Whangarei will be the first of its kind in region, where hopes of a capacity crowd of 18,500 will boost its chances of hosting a Test in the 2017 World Cup.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet punters have been enticed by the big odds offered for Samoa and there is as much money on the tournament's outsiders as there is on Four Nations favourites New Zealand. Perhaps the story is best told in margin betting though, where 80 per cent of all bets placed are on the Kiwis to win 13+.
Televised: Gem – Live 12.55pm (AEST), 1.55pm (AEDT)
The Way We See It: Not since 2008 have we seen a Kiwis side so assured of itself, so talented across the park, as the one that took Australia’s school of kids to kindergarten last week. Now on their home soil, with their tails up and a chorus of fans behind them, we can’t go past another controlled performance from them this weekend. Kiwis by 14 points.