A new era of international rugby league begins with a stand-alone Test match between two different-looking sides in the New Zealand Kiwis and Australia Kangaroos at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night.
TEAM FORM GUIDE
The Michael Maguire side – that has only played one fixture under him – was thumped earlier in the season against England 36-18 in Denver. Much of the side then was formed quickly without any cohesion, compared to an English team that was coming off a strong World Cup campaign the year before.
Australia has not featured in any international rugby league this season with the Mal Meninga-coached side going through a huge transition in players since their 2017 World Cup-winning side. Their last match played was with a few current Kangaroos still in the outfit against England in the World Cup final, winning 6-0 in a tough match.
Regular starters Isaac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck are unavailable through injury but there are returns for Shaun Johnson, Adam Blair, Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor, Jordan Rapana and Isaac Liu, with debuts to hooker Brandon Smith and centre Joseph Manu. Playing fullback in the absence of injured Warriors skipper Tuivasa-Sheck, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is the new captain.
Regular club fullback Tom Trbojevic has been named in the centres. Boyd Cordner will captain the team and share second-row duties with Felise Kaufusi. Jordan McLean will start in the front row. James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell and Luke Keary all debut for the Kangaroos while Damien Cook will debut at hooker, with Ben Hunt to serve as a utility player coming off the interchange bench.
Much of the dominance from the Kangaroos over the past decade has been through the likes of Slater, Smith and Thurston; now with the torch being passed on a new era of young talent and other players waiting in the wings, youngsters have an opportunity to grab a spot in the side for years to come. The Kiwis are a work in progress with Maguire only having the job for less than 12 months, while still tinkering with his players in positions, also having many certain starters out through injuries but like the Aussies, they now get the chance to blood new talent for the ever-growing stature of international rugby league.
An emphasis on completing sets and perfecting the basics of the game will be paramount; having so many debutants and combinations that are just beginning, the fundamentals will need to be visited before any intricate plays form. The matchup alone between these sides through their forward packs is enticing, with much of the greatest props and backrowers of 2018 being featured but one head-to-head will be crucial with nearly all of the attacking football coming through their respective halves – who have played for their countries before – in playmakers Daly Cherry-Evans and Johnson.
With a mixed bag in club football, Johnson has now come to the Kiwis representative season as their five-eighth alongside Kodi Nikorima. The Warriors halfback was electric in certain matches throughout the season but fell off quite spectacularly in the back end of the year. Having the experience of internationals and playing alongside some familiar faces, the new feat to beat the Australians will have him at his evasive best; the aim for Johnson will be popping up at the right moments when the Kiwis need a result to build that crucial pressure the Kangaroos can withstand to no end.
With an impressive count of 15 try assists and 12 line break assists, Johnson will need to get his elusive backs into the game through his own skill of breaking the line or accurate pass selection. If Shaun is to cause havoc against the Australians he needs to roam around the park selecting situations where he can inject himself and create those clutch moments through his natural running or the decision making that has terrorised the Kangaroos in previous Tests.
Dubbed as the future Kangaroos halfback four years ago, the time has come for Cherry-Evans to stamp his claim with Cronk and Thurston moving on. A polarising figure, DCE has been an influential player throughout his career, but more importantly in the last two years he has found his feet as captain at Manly and consistently produced classy performances that have warranted his spot in the team. The new halves pairing with DCE and Keary will be formidable with both players having an adaptable style that can complement each other’s game to dominate any opposition. Cherry-Evans has been informed by his coach that it’s his side to steer.
In a difficult club season, DCE was able to record impressive statistics with eight tries, 15 try assists, 17 line break assists and 12 forced dropouts, which shows he’s the complete package and will be a big influence in the Test. If Daly is to control a youthful Kangaroos side he will need to be in the thick of all engagements, creating and assisting throughout the match as he has regularly done, but more importantly service to his spine to give them the best chance of impacting heavily, as they are some of the most in-form players of the season.
The Kangaroos team are now dominated by New South Welshman. It follows on from the Blues’ successful 2018 Origin campaign. Nine of 17 names were Queenslanders this time last year but on Saturday the likely line-up will feature 11 or 12 Blues.
Kangaroos: 1. James Tedesco, 2. Dane Gagai, 3. Latrell Mitchell, 4. Tom Trbojevic, 5. Valentine Holmes, 6. Luke Keary, 7. Daly Cherry-Evans (vc), 8. David Klemmer, 9. Damien Cook, 10. Jordan McLean, 11. Boyd Cordner (c), 12. Felise Kaufusi, 13. Josh McGuire
Interchange: 14. Ben Hunt, 15. Jake Trbojevic, 16. Tyson Frizell, 17. Aaron Woods
Reserves: 18. Tyrone Peachey, 19. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
Kiwis: 1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (c), 2. Ken Maumalo, 3. Esan Marsters, 4. Joseph Manu, 5. Jordan Rapana, 6. Shaun Johnson, 7. Kodi Nikorima, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Brandon Smith, 10. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, 11. Kevin Proctor, 12. Isaac Liu, 13. James Fisher-Harris
Interchange: 14. Kenny Bromwich, 15. Leeson Ah Mau, 16. Martin Taupau, 17. Adam Blair
Reserves: 18. Peta Hiku, 19. Jahrome Hughes
THE IMPORTANT DETAILS
Date: Saturday 13th October
Venue: Mt Smart Stadium
Kick-off: 4:45pm AEDT
Referee: Ashley Klein
WHO WILL WIN?
It’s a different scenario for many viewers with each side boasting a plethora of new talent and debutants. The Kiwis are the home side so you would think a lot of energy will be drawn from the crowd, going out against an opponent who has a whole new spine set up and a backline that will be tested tremendously. The Kangaroos have much to look forward to with many of their players being the best of the season, with a whole new backline formed for the future it will take time but will be a threat nonetheless. These sides haven’t met since 2017 where the Australians dominated with the regular greats of their side still playing, however even with the changes much of the new players are highly capable Origin players such as Cook, Tedesco and Cherry-Evans.
Both teams have enormous forward packs with rarely any faults to see with the bench stacked also, the key element is the calibre of the backlines; the Kangaroos host two of the great halves this year with outside backs that have torn the league to shreds each week, and the many outs that New Zealand have could be a defining factor. Australia will be too classy, with their players peaking at the right time off big finals campaigns.
Prediction: Kangaroos by 12