A huge win to the Aussies last week over Scotland and a narrow one by the Kiwis over England has shortened the odds on this clash being a preview of the November 20 final at Anfield.
New Zealand showed plenty of grit in hanging on for a one-point win despite not being the better team for long stretches of their clash with England. The flow-on of that is that England will need to beat the Aussies to have a chance to make the final but if the Kiwis win here they can effectively lock in the first finals berth.
The Kangaroos were the most impressive team of the opening weekend – albeit against the minnows of the competition in Scotland – and despite that are sure to ring in mass changes for this game.
Debutants Jake Friend, Jake Trbojevic, and James Maloney are certain to make way, with Matt Moylan and Justin O’Neill likely to join them in spectating. Rested players like Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Boyd Cordner, Darius Boyd, Greg Inglis and Matt Gillett are all in the frame for a recall.
One enforced change is the absence of in-form winger Josh Mansour, who suffered an ACL injury at training during the week to rule him out of the tournament and potentially the early stages of next season. It’s a big blow for the Kangaroos and a shattering one for the popular, newly-married 26-year-old who had a European honeymoon planned with new wife Danielle following the tournament.
Sharks winger Valentine Holmes, who impressed in his Test debut in Perth, is set to replace him in the starting side.
The Kiwis on the other hand are unlikely to ring in many changes, though winger Jason Nightingale (ankle) and prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (leg) are racing the clock to overcome niggling injuries with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Greg Eastwood a chance of suiting up.
Watch out Kangaroos: Enigmatic halfback Shaun Johnson really does carry the hopes of his team. While the forward battle will be as crucial as ever, if Johnson doesn’t fire New Zealand’s hopes virtually vanish. The speedy No.7 didn’t have a single run in the first half last week and the team looked a bit directionless despite taking a 6-4 lead to half time. However a brilliant long-range intercept try shortly after the break and what proved to be the match-winning field goal underscored his value in a tight win.
Watch out Kiwis: Most of the players who starred for the Aussies last weekend are unlikely to feature in this game but the players who replace them are arguably even more intimidating. One of those players was man of the match in the Perth meeting between these two teams. Greg Inglis crossed for two tries in the 26-6 win, setting up one more and running for 180 metres. Look for a well-rested Inglis to slot back into Australia’s left-side attack easily and continue his charge up the Test try-scoring leaderboard where he currently sits third all time for the Kangaroos with 30, behind only Darren Lockyer (35) and Ken Irvine (33).
Key match-up: Cameron Smith v Issac Luke. The Aussies looked a bit lost in the early part of the second half against Scotland after skipper Smith was given a rest, and that’s no slight against Friend, who took over at dummy half. Smith generally isn’t a highlight-reel player but there is just so much quality in everything he does that sometimes his impact is most obvious when he isn’t there. His mastery at controlling the pace of the game is as important to Australia’s success over recent years – if not more important – than Johnathan Thurston’s crazy pinpoint kicks and Greg Inglis’s tackle-busting try-scoring feats of excellence. His opposite number Luke has been one of the best rakes in the world for nigh on a decade now but 2016 hasn’t been his strongest year. At his best, his belligerent defence and cheeky surges from dummy half can trouble the best in the world. He’s a very different style of player to Smith but the impact each has will be vital here.
The history: Played 132; Australia 94, New Zealand 32, drawn 3. After a run of three straight wins to the Kiwis including the Four Nations win and a rare mid-season trans-Tasman win in 2015, the Aussies have reasserted their dominance with wins in both meetings this year, in May then last month in Perth.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Sideline officials: A Elliott and J Cobb. Video referee: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: 9Gem – 6.30am (AEDT).
The way we see it: The Kiwis should be better than they were in Perth but it’s still a big ask. They’ll need to improve a fair bit more on what they showed in edging out England last week while Australia look to have plenty of improvement in them. It’s not an impossible ask for David Kidwell’s men but we’ll play at safe and tip the green and golds by a two-try margin.