On Saturday (European time), Australia and New Zealand will again do battle for the Rugby League World Cup at Old Trafford in what promises to be a truly absorbing fixture. Tim Sheens’ Kangaroos have not lost to the Kiwis in their last six fixtures, and following a phenomenal 64-0 drubbing of Fiji, the Australian side are very confident of getting a result in Manchester.
However, it seems unlikely that the Kiwis will make it easy for the Kangaroos, with Stephen Kearney’s side coming through the mother of all tests against a very strong English side in the semi finals. With both sides currently bang on form, this is likely to be an absolute cracker and with that in mind, we thought we’d make a few observations about the rugby showpiece we have to look forward to on Saturday:
A clash between the two best sides in the world
Whilst it was a particularly agonizing defeat for England in the semi final, New Zealand progressing to Saturday’s showdown confirmed that the top two sides in world rugby league would be doing battle. With Australia sitting snugly at the top of the RLIF World Rankings and New Zealand in a comfortable second place; we really are looking at the two very best rugby league sides in the world, and there’s no doubt that they’ll put on a fascinating spectacle on Saturday.
Could Australia be undercooked?
At first glance, the fact that the Kangaroos chalked up such an impressive win in their semi final appears to be a good thing. However, at second glance it begs the question as to whether they are ready to take on a side as proficient as New Zealand. It really has to be said that Fiji were fairly abject in defeat, and there is a concern that Australia are far less battle-hardened than New Zealand going into the final.
The Kangaroos haven’t conceded a try since their opening game against England, and have ruthlessly disposed of Fiji, USA, Ireland and Fiji (again) without really breaking a sweat. Will they be ready for the barrage that the Kiwis will undoubtedly throw at them? The proof will be in the pudding; but I can’t help but feel that Sheens’ side may be a little undercooked.
The contrast in readiness for a ding-dong battle on Saturday is seen sharply in the fight that New Zealand had to make the final. England led for large portions of their hotly-contested semi final, and the Kiwis had to show extreme patience to get over the line for their last gasp try. New Zealand also had a real contest in their first group game against Samoa, and are probably more hardened to the kind of physical challenge that they’re likely to face on Saturday.
New Zealand are going to need something special to unlock the Australian defence
Whilst they have been utterly brilliant in attack, Australia have been particularly impressive in the defensive aspect of the game. Aside from their opening game against England when they shipped four tries, the Kangaroos have succeeded in preventing their line from being breached, and they are likely to be very tough for the Kiwis to break down at Old Trafford.
The key for New Zealand will lie in unleashing the brilliance of Sonny Bill Williams and Shaun Johnson. If the Kiwis can use Williams to suck his defenders in and then secure the offload, they need to get the ball to Shaun Johnson who will be able to use twinkle toes to make the most of any mismatches he finds in the Australian back division. This worked to great effect in the final moments of the game against England; with Johnson managing a magical step off his left to win the game for this side.
Williams’ offload could well be the difference between the two sides, with the New Zealander having managed a colossal 17 offloads in the competition so far, despite missing a game against France and half a game against Scotland. Australia will need to wrap him up, but that means committing men to the tackle and compromising the defensive line.
Australia have special centres themselves
With Billy Slater injured, Jarryd Hayne has stepped up to the plate and done incredibly well, crossing seven times at centre in two games. Slater is set to return to the starting lineup though, which will necessitate Greg Inglis moving back to the centre alongside Hayne, and how Hayne and Inglis go may dictate who wins the contest.
Hayne has played particularly well in the last two games, but lining up against New Zealand will be a different proposition; perhaps one of the biggest of his career so far. If he can play as he has done in the last two fixtures that would certainly swing the momentum back towards the Kangaroos.
Where will the game be decided?
The game is likely to be a highly physical contest early doors; and whichever side manages to win the early collisions is likely to put themselves in pole position to win the game. Given the likely ferocity of the early confrontations, it’s crucial that both sides manage their forward interchanges well in order to stay in the fight all the way through the game.
New Zealand are likely to have the size advantage with prop forwards Matulino, Kasiano, Bromwich and Waerea-Hargreaves, and Australia will have to be clued in to stop those guys putting the Kiwis on the front foot. If Australia can stop the Kiwi forwards at source, they’ll go a long way to shutting down the threat of Sonny Bill. Love him or hate him, Williams has the ability to turn any tie, and Australia must focus on starving him of good possession.
Ultimately the game is likely to be won by the best defence, and with that in mind, the performances of the forwards will be crucial. Whoever is able to get the ball on the front foot and deliver it to their strike runners will be in pole position to win the match.
Who will win?
Now this is the tough one. Are the Kangaroos that good, or have they just been lucky with the calibre of the opposition they’ve faced? Have New Zealand got another big performance in them after their smash and grab win against England? This one is very difficult to call, but given that Australia have been scoring tries for won and have an almost imperturbable defence, I’m plumping for the Kangaroos to return home victorious.
Whatever happens, it’s likely to be a scintillating contest, and sports fans all over the world can hardly wait. Roll on Saturday.