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With so many fresh faces and new combinations on show, there are plenty of intriguing head-to-head battles which could decide the New Zealand v Australia Test at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night.

There are four debutants on the Australian side and two for the Kiwis, with just five and nine survivors respectively from the previous meeting in May 2017.

Both sides have a handful of injury absentees but a host of players rewarded for strong 2018 form – including plenty of stars who featured in the Roosters v Storm Telstra Premiership grand final.

Fullback: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak v James Tedesco

The newly-installed Kiwi captain will have his hands full matching up against Roosters premiership-winner and Origin-winning Blues fullback James Tedesco, who led the NRL for tackle busts this year with 158.

It's been a rapid rise for DWZ, who was second-choice fullback behind Dylan Edwards at club level this year, but his strong form at the back following Edwards' injury was a big part of the reason for Penrith's strong form through the middle of the year and he is also the incumbent after lining up at the back against England in Denver while Tedesco is on Kangaroos debut.

However Tedesco led the stats in average metres (192-147), tries (9-4), try assists (15-4), line breaks (15-8) and offloads (26-10).

Verdict: Tedesco was among the best players in the competition this year so despite Watene-Zelezniak's obvious quality the Kangaroos have the edge.

Wing: Ken Maumalo and Jordan Rapana v Val Holmes and Dane Gagai

One factor in the Kiwis' favour here is both their wingers play wing at club level, while the Kangaroos' pairing play fullback and centre.

However, Holmes has spent the past few years as arguably the best winger on the planet (including 11 tries in two games during the 2017 World Cup) and his form has reached best-ever levels over the back half of 2018.

Gagai earned Queensland Origin player-of-the-series honours from the flank in 2017 and always excels there at rep level. Holmes nabbed more tries (22) and line breaks (26) in 2018 than the other three combined and the Aussie pair busted a few more tackles (184) than the Kiwi wingers (158).

Verdict: four quality players but the scintillating recent form of Holmes hands this match-up to the Kangaroos.

Centre: Joseph Manu v Latrell Mitchell and Esan Marsters v Tom Trbojevic

The headline act here is the two Roosters marking up on each other. Manu is a noted attacking star but his defence has improved out of sight in 2018 and it will need to be on song against the powerhouse Mitchell, who was 2018's leading point-scorer (248) and broke the fourth-most tackles (118) of any player.

The Aussie pair look more dynamic with a huge advantage in total busts (232-147), tries (26-11) and average metres (253-218), though the latter was boosted by Trbojevic playing fullback. Marsters has been an impressive young improver this year and is also excellent defensively; he will need to be up against the much bigger Trbojevic.

Verdict: plenty of class in the Kiwi pairing but the Kangaroos centres are incredibly dynamic and will take a lot more stopping.

Match preview: Kiwis v Kangaroos

Halves: Shaun Johnson and Kodi Nikorima v Luke Keary and Daly Cherry-Evans

It's perhaps slightly surprising to see Michael Maguire name Warriors half Shaun Johnson at six with Nikorima, historically a five-eighth or fullback until paired with Anthony Milford at Brisbane this year. Maybe it will bring out the best in Johnson, who has been hot and cold at Test level.

Nikorima and Keary are similar types of players, though Keary showed through the finals series he has plenty of playmaking in him as well. Cherry-Evans is probably the key and the best organising half of the four.

Stats-wise, Keary's 21 try assists easily have the rest covered, with DCE's 15 giving the Aussies a 36-26 advantage. Nikorima has the most tries (10) and line breaks (12) of the quartet but there is little to separate the two sides in terms of kick metres.

Verdict: A lot comes down to how the combinations gel. Johnson and Nikorima have combined before at Test level but Cherry-Evans and Keary are a brand new combination, though the Kangaroos come in in arguably better form and with the better organiser, giving them the edge.

Hooker: Brandon Smith v Damien Cook

The loss of Issac Luke was a big one for Michael Maguire, with Slade Griffin (the back-up hooker from the Denver Test) already out and Danny Levi's late-season form not demanding inclusion. Smith is a star on the rise but plays very little actual dummy-half at the Storm given the presence of Cameron Smith.

He is certainly capable and a rugged defender but up against one of the players of the year in Damien Cook, this looks to be one area the Aussies have a clear advantage.

A head-to-head comparison of their 2018 stats isn't exactly fair given Cook averaged close to 80 minutes in 25 games while Smith averaged under 27 minutes in 18 games, however to Cook's nine line breaks, nine line break assists, four tries and eight try assists, Smith did not register a digit in any category. Cook's experience at hooker through a victorious Origin campaign will also be crucial.

Verdict: a definite to the Kangaroos.

Starting middle: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jesse Bromwich and James Fisher-Harris v David Klemmer, Jordan McLean and Josh McGuire

Four players each with plenty of big game experience start in the engine room on Saturday night while two fiery locks will go head to head. Grand final, Origin and Test caps abound when you look at the experience on show in the four props and form-wise there isn't a great deal to separate them either.

Klemmer makes easily the most metres at 181 per game with the rest all between 118 and 129 in 2018. McLean has played far less due to a foot injury that wrecked his 2018 but came good late in the season. Waerea-Hargreaves was sensational through his team's successful finals charge.

Bromwich is an experienced Test campaigner and dual premiership-winner who will be desperate to make amends for the off-field indiscretion that cost him the Test captaincy.

It is worth noting the Kiwi pair each played in the grand final while the Aussie pair come from teams that finished 12th or lower – not that that will be any indication of what Klemmer and McLean can bring on Saturday.

McGuire's experience has Fisher-Harris covered but the young Panther had a breakout season and fears no-one.

Verdict: a dead heat with quality, experience and firepower on both sides.

Second row: Kevin Proctor and Isaac Liu v Boyd Cordner and Felise Kaufusi

Proctor, like Bromwich, has earned a recall after some time in purgatory and is arguably fortunate to be starting over someone like Joseph Tapine, who showed stronger club form this year. Liu, meanwhile, was reduced to more of an impact role at the Roosters late in the season and averaged less than 40 minutes of game time from round 25 on.

Cordner's 124 average metres are well clear of the other three, who all sit between 78 and 89. Each pair has a combined eight tries in 2018 though the Kangaroos have five try assists against one for the Kiwis. Defensively they almost cancel out with Kaufusi putting up the strongest numbers and Cordner the weakest.

Verdict: there isn't much between the four statistically but Proctor looks to be the weak link, if there is one, handing the advantage to the Kangaroos.

Kangaroos face Kiwis in Fortnite battle

Bench: Kenny Bromwich, Leeson Ah Mau, Martin Taupau and Adam Blair v Ben Hunt, Jake Trbojevic, Tyson Frizell and Aaron Woods.

Maguire has effectively opted for four forwards on the bench while Mal Meninga has the luxury of a halfback or hooker with Origin and grand final experience as a bench utility.

Ah Mau and Woods are two of the best, if not the two best, bench props in the competition. Taupau, Blair, Frizell and Trbojevic are each close to the best player at their respective clubs, with Manly teammates Taupau and Trbojevic providing a huge one-two punch at an otherwise struggling Sea Eagles.

Bromwich is a three-time grand finalist but arguably the only one of the eight benchies who wouldn't walk straight into the starting 13 at the majority of NRL clubs.

Verdict: there is some incredible bench firepower on show here with little between them but the utility value in the Bromwich-Hunt head to head match-up tips it just fractionally towards Australia.

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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