2016 FOUR NATIONS FINAL
Date — Monday, November 21, 2016
Time — 1:30am AEDT (2:30pm local time)
Venue — Anfield, Liverpool, England
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Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A rampant Australian team cruises through to the final of a major rugby league tournament only to be faced with little brother Aotearoa from across the ditch who have been largely underwhelming in making their way to the culmination of a month of Test footy.
And then something extraordinary happens.
Formlines are magically erased like a scene from a Harry Potter movie and those plucky little (and not-so little) Kiwis who take great delight in humiliating the rest of the rugby world steal away with another trophy for the league lovers to revel in.
It was 11 years ago in England that this phenomenon first occurred as the Kiwis claimed the 2005 Tri-Nations crown, and they were none too subtle about it.
After splitting their pool games with one win apiece the Kiwis triumphed 24-0, equalling the record for their biggest win against Australia and keeping the Kangaroos scoreless for only the second time in Trans-Tasman Tests. In 2008 they bounced back from a heavy 30-6 defeat by Australia to win the World Cup Final in stunning fashion 34-20 and in 2010 they turned around a 34-20 loss to win the Four Nations final 16-12. Which isn't to say the Aussies haven't had their days (2006 Tri-Nations Final and 34-2 thumping in 2013 World Cup Final) but this is a familiar pattern they need to be extremely wary of.
Shaun Johnson went within six inches of scoring a try that could have potentially tied up their clash a fortnight ago when for all intents and purposes the Kangaroos looked like running riot after opening up an early 10-0 advantage before winning 14-8.
In just his fifth Test in charge New Zealand coach David Kidwell must wrestle with how to replace injured five-eighth Thomas Leuluai (Te Maire Martin or Tohu Harris?) while Australia coach Mal Meninga must find a replacement for back-rower Sam Thaiday after he suffered a facial fracture in colliding with James Graham's bonce on Sunday.
Throughout the tournament Australia have made it their mission to allow the opposition to beat themselves but if this Kiwi team turns up in the mood to play they might need to come up with something more than that.
WATCH OUT KANGAROOS
After inexplicably forgetting that he was on the bench waiting for more game-time in his first Test in charge against Australia in Perth, New Zealand coach David Kidwell unleashed Jason Taumalolo for 77 minutes in his next outing against England. The result was a 271-metre, 28-tackle display which he followed up with 179 metres and 26 tackles from 70 minutes against the Kangaroos in their pool game. The joint 2016 Dally M Player of the Year was rested from the clash with Scotland – and couldn't they have used him! – which should ensure Kidwell gets big minutes out of him on Sunday when it matters most. If Taumalolo does what he is capable of in the middle of the field, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke will get their opportunities to run at a retreating defensive line.
WATCH OUT KIWIS
Anyone else sensing that Greg Inglis is in a bit of a mood this tournament? The shift back to the centres has allowed 'GI' to assert himself on the contest at important stages and when he does to make it count. He terrorised highly-accomplished England centre Kallum Watkins last weekend and he was so threatening against New Zealand that he brought out the type of performance from Shaun Kenny-Dowall that 'Skiddy' can deliver from time to time. The conundrum for Kidwell is whether to match up the more physically suited Kenny-Dowall against Inglis or the more reliable Gerard Beale.
Truth be told, if Inglis is in the same frame of mind that he was against England it's going to take more than one Kiwi to stop him anyway.
KEY MATCH-UP — Cameron Smith v Isaac Luke
There was a time not so long ago when Issac Luke was considered to be contending for the title as the most influential No.9 in the NRL but a look at his record against Cameron Smith at both club and Test level reveals a very lop-sided ledger. The pair have lined up as direct opposites 19 times since Luke's Test debut in 2008 with Smith victorious either with the Storm or Kangaroos on 15 occasions, including the past three meetings.
With the Kiwis' playmaking stocks taking a further hit last weekend New Zealand simply can't win unless Luke finds a way to disrupt the Kangaroos in the ruck area and give Johnson the time and space he needs to create opportunities for his outside men. Smith will do as he has done all tournament and quietly and simply dictate the way the game is played which will keep Luke out of the game, if he lets him.
THE HISTORY — Played 133, Australia 98, New Zealand 32, Drawn 3
After beating the Kangaroos in three successive games for the first time in more than 60 years the Kiwis have dropped all three Tests played between the two nations this year. The news gets even worse for Kiwi fans when you examine meetings between Australia and New Zealand in England, with the Kangaroos victorious in eight of their 10 meetings along with one draw. New Zealand's sole success came in the 2005 Tri-Nations final where they stunned the Aussies 24-0 in Leeds.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS — Australia $1.25, New Zealand $4
While there have been only 50 per cent more individual bets on Australia, the money is running nearly 10 to one in favour of the Kangaroos with Sportsbet. Punters think we're in for a tight one though: Australia 1-12 is the most popular winning margin option while there's been slightly more invested on the Kiwis at the line, where they're receiving a fairly generous start. Greg Inglis is the most popular in the first try-scorer market ahead of Blake Ferguson.
Match Referee — B. Cummins
Touch Judges — A. Elliot and C. Kendall
Video Referee — B. Sutton
TV, LIVE STREAM INFORMATION
TV — Live via Nine GEM from 1:00am AEDT (check local guides)
Live Stream — Live via NRL Digital Pass (subscription required)
HOW WE SEE IT
Could be a cliff-hanger, could be a blow-out, which is why sport remains the ultimate in reality TV. The Kangaroos have looked calculating and ruthless all tournament but if any team can recover after becoming the first top-tier nation to give up a point against a Four Nations minnow then it is New Zealand. Or the Kangaroos could force them into error early, bring on an onset of panic in the Kiwi camp and shut them out completely.
I've got a sneaky suspicion the Kiwis are preparing an ambush but you couldn't in good conscience tip them, not even at the $4. Kangaroos by 14 points.