Quarter Finals: New Zealand v Fiji preview
New Zealand eye redemption against fearless Fiji
Humbled in landmark circumstances last Saturday, New Zealand will be eager to prove the 28-22 loss to Tonga was merely a minor hiccup in their pursuit of World Cup glory. Squandering a dominant lead at the change of ends in Hamilton, a calamitous second half saw the Kiwis concede five tries to finish second in their pool, setting up an encounter against a proficient Fiji outfit. Facing the Bati for the first time, coach David Kidwell has responded to last week's shock loss by naming Danny Levi at hooker, while Te Maire Martin comes into the starting side in a move that sees Kodi Nikorima relegated to the role of bench utility. In spite of an inability to generate a dominant forward platform, the same forward pack has been retained in a sign that may make-or-break the side's aspirations of progressing to the final four.
Having amassed the most points of any side during the pool stages of the tournament, the Bati's ability to score points has never been in question. What does stand as the true test for coach Michael Potter is instilling a defensive mindset capable of keeping pace with an elite opponent, while capitalising on the opportunities that present themselves in attacking territory. Coming up against New Zealand for the first time in International Rugby League, Fiji will be looking to gauge their progress as a nation, having previously been cannon fodder for the likes of Australia and England in previous tournaments. Maintaining the same core group of players that have led the side to a third straight finals appearance, the initial stages will be telling as the likes of USA, Wales and eventually Italy offered a degree of resistance that will be absent on Saturday night.
Who to watch: Having plied his trade off the bench during the pool stage, Danny Levi is set to experience the biggest match of his career having been named to start for the first time. Preferred ahead of veterans Thomas Leuluai, Elijah Taylor and the overlooked Issac Luke, the Newcastle rake will be looking to generate the potency that saw the Kiwis establish a healthy lead against Tonga before being replaced in the second half. Renown for his support play and willingness to take on the line, the 21-year-old has been forced to endure a tumultuous start to his career at club level with the Knights, but having developed his trade under difficult circumstance, Levi will be eager to prove that behind a premier forward pack, he has what it takes to be a long-term player for New Zealand.
As the most maligned player in contemporary rugby league, Jarryd Hayne will have his sights set on silencing his critics with a leading role in plotting the further downfall of New Zealand. Having starred for Fiji against lesser opposition, the skillset that has seen the Titans star heiled as one of the defining players of his generation will need to be on display if the Bati are to stand any chance of pulling off an unlikely victory. Blessed with a natural talent that should have yielded more achievements than his impressive resume boasts, Hayne stands at a crossroad in his career. With speculation mounting over an imminent exit from the Gold Coast, the best way for the former Eels wunderkind to control the narrative associated with him lies in his efforts on the field, or else he runs the risk of being tarnished as a yet another player unable to realise his potential.
The favourite: While the shock of last week has put the Kiwis aspirations of featuring in the Final into question, the quality of the home side should be too much for the flair of Fiji to contend with.
My tip: The reality check handed to New Zealand by Tonga last week should see the Kiwis produce an impeccable performance, while the lack of genuine threat posed to Fiji during the pool stage will undoubtedly affect their ability to engage in a grinding contest. The test for both sides is where they sit at the end of 80 minutes - the Kiwis need to maintain their intensity throughout, while Fiji has to shift their mindset towards a resolve in defence on par with how they thrive with the ball in hand. New Zealand will win this match, but moving forward Fiji should look back on this contest as a defining moment. New Zealand by 16.