The new-look Kangaroos and Kiwis get a feel for their overhauled squads when they clash at NIB Stadium in Perth on Saturday.
Injuries, form, availability, age and retirement ensure Australia’s game-day 17 will look rather different to when the two nations met in Newcastle in May’s trans-Tasman Test – a dour affair won 16-0 by the green and golds.
There is no guarantees Mal Meninga will select a ‘best’ 17 from the wider squad as he looks to get a feel for his new roster ahead of the official Four Nations kick-off, but new Kiwis coach David Kidwell has gone with something like his best available 17.
For the Aussies, Corey Parker, Paul Gallen, Josh McGuire, Semi Radradra and James Tamou (Australia) have made way from the last meeting in May. Kodi Nikorima, Sam Moa and Kenny Bromwich are the absentees for New Zealand.
Despite the continued absence of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Kieran Foran, who were also unavailable in May, there will still be two new faces in the ‘spine’ with Issac Luke to return at hooker in place of Lewis Brown (who moves to the bench) and Thomas Leuluai taking over at five-eighth in place of Nikorima.
Kiwi rookies David Fusitu’a, Te Maire Martin and Joseph Tapine will be hoping to make their maiden New Zealand appearance in the next six weeks. In the short term, centre Solomone Kata (who has already played for Tonga) and winger Jordan Rapana (Cook Islands) will make their Kiwi debuts though not their test debuts. Roosters Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves also return to the black and white.
Aussie coach Mal Meninga has signalled a shift in his thinking; while the May hit-out – his first in the role – was very much a ‘best team for right now’ approach, the pensioning off of in-form Blues and Cronulla skipper Paul Gallen (who will retire from the NRL shortly before next year’s World Cup) indicates a look-ahead to the 2017 tournament.
While his first-choice spine of Darius Boyd, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith is not in question, this game and the early stages of the Four Nations could see the likes of five-eighth James Maloney, fullback Matt Moylan and hooker Jake Friend given Test debuts. Fellow international rookies Valentine Holmes, Tyson Frizell, Shannon Boyd and Justin O’Neill are all also likely to feature at some point sooner rather than later, with Holmes likely to get a run this weekend given incumbent winger Josh Mansour is unavailable due to his wedding.
Watch out Kangaroos: This Kiwis forward pack is intimidating. Big, fast, mobile, powerful. Storm player of the year and Kiwi captain Jesse Bromwich (3,993 metres and 148 per game in 2016) is arguably the best prop in the world right now. Lock Jason Taumalolo is the reigning co-Dally M Medallist and has claims on being the best No.13 on the planet right now. The starting back-rowers – also from Melbourne – in Tohu Harris and Kevin Proctor are each at the top of their games and were each a crucial part of Melbourne’s charge to the grand final. Roosters powerhouse Jared Waerea-Hargreaves makes a welcome return to the black and white jersey; the last of his five Tests came in the losing 2013 World Cup decider. His absence early in the year was keenly felt by a struggling Roosters outfit while his return to form later on coincided with their late-season surge.
Watch out Kiwis: While it’s a bit of a new-look forward pack for the Kangaroos, the old firm of Boyd, Thurston, Cronk and Smith boast near-limitless class and talent. Their big game experience and combination with each other will be a massive leg-up when it comes to taking opportunities created by the respective forward packs – an asset the Kiwis don’t have to anywhere near the same degree.
The top five for try assists in the NRL this year were all Aussies and four of those five – Thurston (25), Cronk (23), Matt Moylan and Ben Hunt (both 21) and Michael Morgan (20) are in the Kangaroos’ 24-man squad. Shaun Johnson was equal sixth with 18 (alongside Cameron Smith, among others) and will be the man most needed to step up and match it with the creative genius of the Aussie spine. Even if Meninga chooses to rest one or even two of those players to give a chance to one of Moylan, Friend or Maloney the green and golds still well and truly have the edge in this department.
Key match-up: The middle forwards. Bromwich, Waerea-Hargreaves and Taumalolo is as good a middle three as you’ll find in the game currently while the Kangaroos have said goodbye to some of the best of recent years in Gallen, Parker and Tamou. Whoever ends up taking those spots in this test from Matt Scott, David Klemmer, Trent Merrin, Tyson Frizell and Shannon Boyd will have a big task cut out for them.
The history: Played 131; Australia 93, NZ 32, drawn 3. May’s win snapped a three-match losing run for the Kangaroos against New Zealand, which included a loss in the 2014 Four Nations final. Australia won the eight meetings prior to that, with their previous loss coming in the 2010 Four Nations final.
What are the odds: Eighty per cent of all money bet on the Perth Test with Sportsbet has gone on the Kangaroos, and Australia 13+ is the most popular winning margin. There is actually more money on the draw than there is on a New Zealand 13+ victory despite the Kiwis’ impressive recent record against the Kangaroos.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Sideline officials: Shane Rehm and Jeff Younis. Review officials: Luke Patten & Steve Chiddy. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – live coverage from 7.30pm (AEDT).
The way we see it: Plenty will depend on how close to full strength the Aussies are and the Kiwi forward firepower will ensure the green and golds don’t have it all their own way but in a one-off Test on what is still their home soil we’ll tip Meninga’s men to get the job done by 10 points.