Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland
This is an intriguing time in international rugby league, the dominant force Australia are regenerating, England are breathing down their necks, Tonga are the rising force in the Pacific while New Zealand are slipping but hoping to regain respect over the next couple of months. The Kiwi’s road to redemption starts at home this Saturday when they take on the might of the Kangaroos. Although belted 36-18 by England in their last outing, the one-off midseason Denver Test in June, the Kiwi side running out is markedly different and they will fancy their chances of catching the Kangaroos cold. After rising their internal mercury levels with the Haka, the Kiwis will leave the Aussies borderline hypothermic and debutants double bagging it downstairs. In reply I’m not sure if the Kangaroos will reprise the RISE war cry ritual from the 2017 World Cup but maybe the Kangaroos need to revive their pregame dance last seen in 1960s? If you’ve ever seen Chook Raper and Graeme Langlands doing what looks like the Watusi by a bunch of daggy dads at a wedding, you’ll know why it was benched.
In reigning Dally M winner Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's absence, NZ Coach Michael Maguire has made an interesting call naming Panther Dallin Watene-Zelezniak not only as fullback as he was in the United States but also captain, replacing Issac Luke, both positions you assume Dallin will relinquish to RTS when he returns for the UK tour. In bypassing Shaun Johnson and Jesse Bromwich for the top job, Maguire is backing DWZ’s fearless nature to inspire and sending SJ and JBrom a message – lead with your actions, concentrate on playing your best footy which frees Johnson up to do what he does best, play what he sees, and Maguire would like to see Johnson run the ball. Johnson is at his most dynamic when he takes the line on giving the defence heart palpitations and for NZ to triumph the Kiwis need to unleash some magic from Johnson who was disappointing in the Warriors NRL semi-final fade out, a barnstormer for his country will do his confidence wonders.
Johnson, selected at five-eighth, is opposing a test debutant in the Clive Churchill Medallist the Roosters Luke Keary, a late call up due to Cameron Munster pulling out for personal reasons. Keary is a great pick by coach Mal Meninga, despite not featuring in Origin for the Blues, as he is in superlative form and reunites the Roosters lethal left edge with Boyd Cordner and Latrell Mitchell. With a short preparation and James Tedesco at fullback expect the Roosters sweep play with Keary linking with Teddy at pace to unleash Mitchell or cutout to the wing to feature heavily in the Roos playbook. The Kiwis right edge defence will be tested and that side of the field features a sensational match up in Roosters Grand Final winning centres Mitchell and Joseph Manu opposing each other. That battle is a salivating prospect with both having big games in attack and defence featuring electric speed, flashy footwork, ferocious fends and tenacious tackling. Roosters gaffer Trent Robinson will enjoy viewing their richly deserved debuts but hoping both come out unscathed. Ha this is a Test Robbo! The young guns representing their nations with pride will ruffle the other and feathers will fly, bring it on!
Cordner has taken the reins after GI went DUI, Greg Inglis blowing the honour of leading his country after treating the Great Western Highway like an autobahn. Cordner skippers a side in a state of flux with the retirements of greats Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk as well as injuries to past regulars Matt Gillett and Michael Morgan leaving the Kangaroos lacking the combination in this arena that gave them such an edge in the past. Big Mal desiring direction has told Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans that this is his team to lead around the park. DCE never lacks confidence and with Sea Eagles team mates Jake and Tom Trbojevic surrounding him, he will feel comfortable and ready to attack the Kiwis on the right edge with Tom Turbo a surprise selection at centre pushing Dane Gagai onto the wing where it was expected Tom would play.
DCE faces Kodi Nikorima and its here where the Kiwis are vulnerable. Nikorima is a major key for an upset Kiwi conquest. His kicking and general game management can be flaky, and he must on point to steer the pack around, control the sets to pin the Kangaroos deep and clear Johnson a path for takeoff. The Roos are a big side though and watch Nikorima slip through any gaps left by fatigued forwards, Kodi’s run and gun style suits the Kiwis off-the-cuff play. It’s rocks or diamonds but if the they are to break down the Kangaroos this is how they’ll do it. Off the bench watch the Sea Eagles enforcer Marty Taupau wage war on the Aussies in defence and offload often in attack. If Taupau goes kapow the Kiwis can cause chaos.
Second phase play is crucial to the outcome and the Kiwis have a pack jammed with strong guys containing the ball skills to deliver. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, ignites when back in black and bouyant after winning a premiership, he and Jesse Bromwich will try dominate the Aussies big boppers David Klemmer and Jordan McLean. JWH and Taupau need to silence the Klemminator as if the Kangaroos gain the upper hand in the engine room, debutant hooker Damien Cook will carve the Kiwis up and the Rabbitohs rake could launch Kangaroo carnage. If I was Cook, I’d avoid running at the Kiwis new number 9, Brandon Smith. I didn’t do well at physics at school but at the pace Cook runs if the Storm’s backup hooker connects with the force he holds in those small boulders he calls shoulders, Smith will send the Aussie speedster into row Z and the raucous home fans into raptures.
There is a great mix of old heads and inexperience at this level for both sides and though the home ground gives the Kiwis an advantage in that respect the Kangaroos are stacked with class. After some fiery early exchanges expect Australia to get on top and after a tight first half pull away with a comfortable win.
Australia by 14