Beware a New Zealand ambush at Eden Park
Kangaroos player Jharal Yow Yeh takes the ball forward during the Anzac Test match between Australia and New Zealand. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
On Friday night old foes, Australia and New Zealand will battle each other in the trans-Tasman rugby league Test match.
Whilst the Kangaroos will start the match as favourites, the make-up of the Kiwi side has me thinking an upset could be on the cards.
The New Zealand squad has a little bit of everything: skill, size, speed, experience, youth, finishers, mongrel, passion and x-factors.
Whilst that’s not to say that the Australian team lack these qualities, the point is, this is a very good Kiwi side and if Australia think it’s going to be a walk in the park, they’ll be in for a rude shock.
As with most rugby league games, the battle will go a long way to being decided by the respective forward packs.
Australia has a nice blend of size and speed with its forwards, however New Zealand will throw plenty of muscle and intensity at Australia. Any pack that includes Adam Blair, Jeremy Smith, Frank Pritchard and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is going to be a tough proposition. Led by these four, the Kiwi pack will run hard and tackle hard. If Australia isn’t ready from the kick-off, they’ll be counting the bruises pretty quickly.
Whilst not even the Kiwis would pretend that Isaac Luke is in Cameron Smith’s class, the South Sydney hooker has been in pretty good form, and the Australian’s will need to watch his dangerous darts from dummy-half. Luke also plays with plenty of passion when he dons the famous black jersey, and seems to lift his intensity a couple of notches. A focused Luke is not a player the Australians should underestimate.
The ability of the New Zealand pack to lay a platform for their ball players will be crucial, because the Kiwis possess some potentially lethal strike weapons in the form of the aforementioned Luke, and their outstanding halves, Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson.
In Marshall and Johnson, New Zealand will field their most exciting halves pairing ever. Both players are capable of producing sheer magic out of nothing, and if they strike an early chemistry and both play well, Australia are in big trouble.
Despite the Wests Tigers slow start to the season, Benji has actually been playing pretty well. He was at his sublime best on Sunday in the Tigers dismantling off Penrith, attacking the line, side-stepping big forwards, and setting up his outside backs.
His confidence should be high coming off a big win, and everyone knows that a confident Benji is a dangerous Benji. He should also relish playing with Johnson, who will surely take a lot of pressure off the five-eight.
Johnson will be making his debut for the Kiwis, but if anyone thinks the 21-year-old will be nervous, they clearly have never seen the Warriors halfback play. The youngster does not suffer from a lack of confidence. Most importantly, he certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of talent.
Johnson has all the tools to be an all-time great, and playing with Marshall will ensure he doesn’t have to do too much, too often. Johnson is also a lot bigger than he appears, and close to their own try line, the Australians will have their work cut out with the amount of options Marshall and Johnson have up their sleeve.
Rounding out the strong New Zealand side is their backs, who offer the Kiwis a rare combination of size, speed, safety, experience and unpredictability.
Whilst you never know what you’re going get from Manu Vatuvei, on a good day he’s one of the best wingers in the world, with an intimidating combination of speed and strength.
Jason Nightingale is one of the safest players in the NRL, rarely making a mistake and always being in the right place at the right time, in both attack and defence. He also offers a cool and level head in a team that has some fiery and passionate players.
Shaun Kenny-Dowall is a dangerous weapon in the centres, and given the right amount of ball, can cause major issues for defences. He hasn’t been in the best form for the last year or so, but anyone who remembers his 2010 season would be aware of what he is capable of, and with Marshall and Johnson calling the shots, he should see plenty of quality ball.
Meanwhile, with Warriors fullback and Test incumbent Kevin Locke sidelined with a badly corked leg, the Brisbane Broncos’ Josh Hoffman produced a timely display against the Canberra Raiders on the weekend, which ensured that he will make his Test debut after just 49 NRL games.
He was unlucky not to win the man-of-the-match award in racking up over 250 metres in the Broncos 30-6 win. He runs hard and fast, and likes to get involved all over the park. His combination with New Zealander’s ball players will be crucial, and I expect him to be a constant threat to the Australian defensive line.
The Australian team is no doubt strong, but there are a few selections that New Zealand might be able to capitalise on.
Darius Boyd has been little more than a passenger for Newcastle this season, as he struggles to fit in with his new team. He’ll also be playing on the wing, rather than fullback, and whilst he has plenty of experience playing on the flank, he will still be out of position. Combine that with a lack of confidence, and it’s something the Kiwis could target.
Daly Cherry-Evans is a fantastic player in great form. But I’m not sure if he is the best option as the utility player off the bench. He’s a halfback by trade, and I can’t see Thurston or Cronk requiring a rest during the game. That means Cherry-Evans will most probably be used as the back-up hooker, a position he has little experience in, and lacks pure dummy-half skills. Again, this is an area the Kiwis may try to exploit.
David Taylor is on debut, and is prone to the odd mental mistake. Look for the Kiwis to apply the blowtorch and see how Taylor responds.
Lastly, I can’t imagine that the decision by James Tamou to turn his back on New Zealand will have gone down well in the Kiwi change room. Make no mistake, this will have been discussed, and I anticipate a very, very rough welcome by the New Zealanders when Tamou enters the game. It just may be that Tamou’s ‘defection’ fires the Kiwis up and provides the added motivation that sometimes makes the difference on the scoreboard.
The Australian team is very talented and very experienced, and I expect them to win. But I won’t be shocked if New Zealand can topple the Kangaroos because they are putting a very strong and exciting team on the park.
Prediction: Australia 24 – New Zealand 20.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network and NBA Down Under, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.
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