Combinations crucial to Kiwis' hopes
Australia's ability to pick and stick with players in key positions has long been the backbone behind their success on the international stage, but the Kiwis are quietly confident they have the spine to carry them to this year's World Cup and beyond.
While injuries have forced the Kangaroos to switch between Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Darius Boyd at the back – a luxury any coach would love to have – Mal Meninga has been able to rely on Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith in the 6, 7 and 9 to provide stability to the men in green and gold time and time again.
The same can't be said for the Kiwis who have been forced to chop and change their spine over the years which has wreaked havoc on their playmaking stocks.
Just last year, the Kiwis went with four different combinations in their six Tests, while their end-of-season tour to the UK in 2015 saw them use Kodi Nikorima, Tui Lolohea and Peta Hiku in the halves.
For the first time in years, New Zealand have been able to call on their first-choice spine with the Warriors quartet of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke set to bring their club combinations to the national side.
"I think their connection is going to be important," assistant coach Steve McNamara said on Tuesday.
"You've got to realise they've only played a few games together as a group so they're still in the infancy stage of developing that relationship with themselves. It is a bonus and it gives is a bit of a head start going into this camp.
"You look at the spine of the Australian team and it's the spine of the Queensland team and they've been able to put a number of games together. It's not only the number of games but the quality of the games that those guys have been involved in that gives them a real advantage in those close games.
"It's good for us now that our spine is in place and there are some good players snapping at their heels as well trying to get into that equation which is always good to keep the pressure on them.
"If those players can continue playing together for the Warriors until the end of the season and stay injury free, come the World Cup at the end of the season it should be an even bigger plus."
Perhaps the biggest inclusion is five-eighth Kieran Foran who is set to play his first Test since the corresponding fixture in 2015.
"He's got a real smile on his face at the minute, he's enjoying his rugby league, he's got a spring in his step when he comes to training and it's great to see," McNamara said.
"It's great to see that first and foremost and it's great to see him back on the field and playing some good footy.
"He's been out for a long period of time but he's come back, he's played well and there's a feeling there that there's a whole lot more to come from him."
While New Zealand's 'big four' have the potential to play out the 80 minutes, the Kiwis have included utilities Kodi Nikorima, Kenny Bromwich and uncapped Storm hooker Brandon Smith in their 20-man squad.
McNamara said the two extra interchanges available under international rules meant his side would consider carrying a smaller body on the bench capable of making a meaningful impact if the Kiwis were in need of points.
"I think the big difference with international and club level is the 10 interchanges," he said.
"Teams in the NRL are running with eight interchanges and it makes it very difficult at times to get game time for some players.
"We've seen a lot of players in the NRL this year who have sat on the bench for the whole game, but I think the 10 interchanges gives us flexibility, so if we do choose to carry another hooker on the bench then we can do that."
One of the players in question, Kenny Bromwich, is keen to add to his one Test cap from last year that saw him a play a similar role off the bench.
"I'm ready to put my hand up [to play] wherever. I'm hungry to get out there and do whatever it takes for us to perform well. I'm looking forward to see what happens there," he said.
"It's awesome because you get to play on the back of some big boys and some quick play the balls. This pack that we have here is an awesome pack. If I get the opportunity to get on I'll be happy to jump on the back of them."