Four Nations Final Preview

Almost two years ago New Zealand shocked the rugby league world by doing the unthinkable and winning their first World Cup since the tournament’s inception.

Whilst winning a test series against the Australians was nothing new to them at the time, ending their trans-Tasman neighbours’ 33 year ownership of the trophy was a major milestone in establishing the New Zealand side as a genuine contender Australia should be wary of after years of underperforming. It showed the 2005 Tri Nations win at Elland Road in Leeds was not a fluke, and that Australia should not expect to turn up and collect whatever trophy is on offer in a test series.

It’ll be 721 days since that historic day in Brisbane this Saturday. New Zealand will go back to Suncorp Stadium in search of taking another one of Australian rugby league’s prized possessions. Should the Kiwis win, they will hold two of the three trophies that the two nations compete for, leaving only the Bill Kelly trophy in the Australian trophy cabinet after they defeated New Zealand at AAMI Park in this year’s ANZAC Test.

Widespread controversy already surrounds the Four Nations final due to the appointment of Australian referee Tony Archer. Archer was heavily condemned by both the English fans and its television commentary team for his performance during the Australia V England match earlier in the tournament in Melbourne. His appointment does seem a bit illogical considering English referee Richard Silverwood is available after recovering from an injury picked up during the tournament, and has already been in the middle on both occasions these two teams have met this year.

But of the five Tri Nations and Four Nations finals since 1999, Australia have won four of them. Their only blemish in the tournament’s history is the 2005 loss to New Zealand in which the Australian’s lost 24-0. That loss saw Wayne Bennett resign, albeit in less dramatic fashion than what Ricky Stuart did three years later.

Amazingly none of the 2005 New Zealand winners have survived to play in this Saturday’s final. Only Brent Tate and Petero Civoniceva have survived from that game to the Australian 20-man squad which was released on Wednesday. However, Civoniceva is likely to be dropped from the bench amid speculation Tim Sheens is calling time on the 34 year old’s nine year career in the green and gold jersey. He has opted to go with Matt Scott and David Shillington in the starting prop’s position.

The Rugby League International Federation’s Player of the Year, Todd Carney, has been axed in favour of two time Golden Boot winner Darren Lockyer. Billy Slater rejoins the team at fullback replacing Darius Boyd from last Saturday’s game, who has been dropped despite being named in the 20 man squad. Willie Tonga returns to the centres in favour of Chris Lawrence from West Tigers. The Australian bench is likely to start with Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Nate Myles, and Anthony WatmoughKurt Gidley will take up the utility position with them. 

New Zealand have made minimal changes to the side that lost at Eden Park. Sika Manu drops to the bench in favour of Bronson Harrison, who starts in the second row despite not playing on Saturday. Frank Pritchard sustained an injury during the game at Eden Park and has not been considered for selection. Greg Eastwood swaps from the bench onto the run on squad with Frank-Paul Nuuausala.
The back line for New Zealand remains the same as it did at Eden Park and against Papua New Guinea. The only change Stephen Kearney has made to the back line all series was replacing the injured Manu Vatuvei with Sam Perrett after their match with England. His starting forwards are the same six players that began the World Cup final two years ago. 

At the beginning of this tournament New Zealand were 3/1 with some bookmakers to win the final. However, bookmakers still see Australia as overwhelming favourites to retain the Four Nations. Last Saturday’s result will not have increased the odds for Australia, but lure them into a false sense of expectation that Australia will win. New Zealand can win this game, and if they do it will be talked about for months after like in 2005 and 2008.

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