NRL Roundtable: Lessons from Aus v NZ
Dominic Brock (NRL.com Production Editor): Australia warmed up for the Four Nations with a pretty comfortable 26-6 win over New Zealand in Perth on Saturday night. Let's start with the good news – what caught your eye about the Aussies' performance?
Jack Brady (National Correspondent): I don't think Australia was as cohesive as they were made out to be but there were certainly some individual performances that looked promising for the Kangaroos. Boyd Cordner and Trent Merrin were outstanding while Shannon Boyd and Valentine Holmes certainly didn't look out of place. More than anything it creates positive headaches for Mal Meninga to have heading into the tournament.
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): I agree, for the most part. I thought Val Holmes was excellent on debut and made an excellent case to stake the right side winger's spot over Ferguson (given that is his preferred position and the Kangaroos' right edge was underwhelming).
Merrin was best on ground for mine and looks like he'll be a mainstay in green and gold for some time to come following the pensioning off of Parker and Gallen.
None of the four key playmakers were particularly dominant though all had good moments and did enough – the fact they have plenty of improvement in them is ominous for the rest of the Four Nations competition.
DB: Do we expect to see any major team changes when the Kangaroos line up in the Four Nations? Presumably Josh Mansour and Aaron Woods come back in...
JB: Well Australia play Scotland in the first round of the tournament so I'm expecting plenty of changes from the team that beat New Zealand in Perth. I think Mansour and Holmes will get a crack on the wings together and Aaron Woods will certainly start (quite possibly for Matt Scott). Blokes like Matt Moylan and James Maloney may go close to earning debuts too.
CK: The Scotland game should see a few debuts – any of Jake Friend, James Maloney, Matt Moylan and co. Mansour and Woods should come back in either way. I think the Dugan-Ferguson right edge is the most under pressure part of the 17 form-wise. Woods would come in for Shannon Boyd in a full-strength squad but as you say, maybe for Matt Scott in the Scotland game.
DB: OK so we'll take a look at the bad news now. How did you rate the Kiwis' performance and how does it affect their Four Nations chances?
CK: Well to put it bluntly, their last-tackle plays were terrible. Shaun Johnson probably needs to take more ownership but the whole spine needs to click, and click soon, if they're to be a chance. The good news for them, I think, is that their turbo-charged forward pack means they'll be competitive with England straight away and should be far too good for Scotland so you'd think they'll have a few games to sort it out before (hopefully, from their point of view) getting a chance against Australia in the final.
JB: I wouldn't read into it too much. It's David Kidwell's first Test in charge and he seemed to be holding players back, namely Jason Taumalolo. Throw Simon Mannering back into the mix too and you have an immediately stronger Kiwis outfit. I do fear for Shaun Kenny-Dowall's representative future though. He was the worst player on the field in Perth. It might spell good news for Gerard Beale and David Fusitu'a.
CK: To be honest I'm not too worried about SKD. He's a brilliant player who just had a really off night. I'm not putting the red pen through him yet by any stretch. I wouldn't actually mind seeing him on the wing though, depending on if/how they want to reshuffle their back five. Solomone Kata looks a keeper though, how good did he go. Lock him in for left centre for the rest of the tournament.
JB: Who do you drop for SKD though? If he's to play wing, that is. Jason Nightingale was very effective in shutting down Ferguson and Dugan, while Rapana showed glimpses of his Raiders form.
DB: It seems hard to leave out Rapana after the season he's had...
CK: Personally I'd leave him at centre. I think he needs at least one more chance. At his best he's as good if not better than anyone else in that 3/4 line.
DB: It may have been Kidwell's first Test in charge but do you think he has enough time to get them back to their best (or close to it) by the business end of the Four Nations? They didn't look like the world's No.1 Test side on Saturday.
JB: You have to remember Dom that a lot of those players haven't played since Round 26 – six weeks ago. There were 10 players who didn't feature in finals football. Australia only had five blokes who didn't so that's way easier to cover.
CK: They certainly lacked cohesion. But given the number of recent changes there's no reason they can't improve quickly. Whether they do is the question. It's a bit of a gamble given his lack of football but I wouldn't mind seeing Te Maire Martin given a chance off the bench as a utility just to see how he goes. They've got a ton of big-minute forwards. Most of their back row can knock out 80 no worries and Jesse Bromwich can play 60+ in the middle.
JB: A key for Kidwell is getting Taumalolo's game management right. He was left off the paddock for far too long on the weekend. Give him another fortnight to get himself right and look out England.
CK: Kidwell said as much and don't forget Taumalolo is managing an ongoing knee issue. I don't know if forcing him to play 70 minutes in the middle in a friendly would have been the best strategy for their Four Nations hopes.
JB: The fact Taumalolo is so crucial for the Kiwis and that he didn't play many minutes has me unconcerned about the Kiwis' Four Nations credentials. I think it's going to be one of the closer international tournaments rugby league has had in years.
DB: The one area we talked about last week where the Kiwis looked to have the advantage over Australia was in the forwards – but that didn't really come through on the weekend. Is that more a case of guys like Taumalolo getting less game time than usual, or a sign that the Aussie pack is better than we thought? (Or did NZ's errors and poor last-tackle options make the forward battle a moot point?)
CK: Probably a bit of everything. Think about how much of Proctor and Harris's games at club level are based around running off Smith and Cronk – they may need time to adjust to Luke and Johnson. It obviously makes it hard when you're not getting help from last-play kicks also.
JB: The Australian pack was always going to stand up to the Kiwis so I don't see that being the issue. I just think a lack of cohesion and time spent away from the game didn't help their cause. Waerea-Hargreaves made less than 50 metres and Jesse Bromwich made a couple of uncharacteristic errors.
The Kiwis' forward struggles wouldn't have helped their last-tackle options. When your bigger men are struggling to get on the front foot, how can you expect Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai to get good kicks away?
CK: There were still some inexcusable last-play blunders. Kicking from poor position is one thing but at times they made things harder than they needed to be.
DB: So looking ahead to the Four Nations – and we'll discuss England and Scotland in some detail next week – did Saturday's game change your expectations for how Australia and New Zealand will fare? Obviously we're not writing off the Kiwis' chances just yet, but the Kangaroos will be hot favourites.
CK: I don't think anything about the game was massively surprising. The Aussies will be hard to beat, the Kiwis will be hot and cold but a chance of upsetting anyone on their day.
JB: Not really. You have to remember, Australia weren't world beaters on Saturday. A lot of what New Zealand did played into their hands – just look at Valentine Holmes' try for example. Throw in the fact that Inglis's two tries were flukes and we have a game on our hands. If New Zealand can bounce back – which they will – I can see them totally winning the whole thing. Australia will be hard to beat once you throw Mansour and Woods back into the mix too. All in all, it's going to be a wicked series.
DB: Good note to finish up on. That'll do us, thanks gentlemen.