PANTHER PRIDE | A big win for the mountain men tonight has them firmly entrenched in the top eight, ...
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With the dust having finally settled on the NRL season, it's time to look forward to the upcoming Four Nations tournament - it promises to be intriguing viewing..
The Kangaroos enter any contest with the favouritism tag and it's no different in this year's Four Nations. Australia are reigning champions following their 46-16 demolition of England at Elland Road last season. However, there are a number of missing players from that successful side including the injured Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston, Justin Hodges and Jarryd Hayne. But the quality of depth in Australia means high quality replacements. Storm playmaker Cooper Cronk slots into the number seven, while centres Wilie Tonga and Brent Tate find themselves back in the Green and Gold after a few years in the wilderness.
Rustiness may be a concern though, with the 'spine' of Slater, Darren Lockyer, Cronk and Cameron Smith having not laced on a boot in a number of months. Fortunately, Australia get the chance to flush out any cobwebs against Papua New Guinea in their opening fixture.
Australia's two biggest strengths are composure under pressure and consistency. Rarely do the Kangaroos get flustered which allows their talent and 'big game performers' to take centre stage at the crucial moments. And haven't they got some entertainers. Billy Slater is without doubt the one to watch, after a season of playing without reward look for the fullback to emerge refreshed and at his lethal best.
Although the title holding Australian side are firm favourites with the bookmakers, New Zealand look primed for an ambush. The Kiwis boast unprecedented talent in the playmaking positions and a tough forward pack blessed with speed, aggression, footwork and the ability to offload - the necessary ingredients to beat the Kangaroos.
The World Cup champions often play their best in a tournament when they can build into form with matches under their belt. Considering the ease in which they dismantled Samoa 50-6 last weekend, they already appear to be on their game.
From the outside looking in, coach Stephen Kearney - head coach of Parramatta next season - seems to have found the right balance between motivation and tactics. The current Kiwi side play with passion but also stick to the gameplan, one that looks to be centred around pace and footwork in the ruck. Their X-factor is South Sydney hooker Issac Luke (pictured), who is exceptionally dangerous up the centre of the field. In Saturday's opener against England he'll be starting off the bench behind Thomas Leuluai but that move serves to increase his impact once he takes the field.
England upset New Zealand to make the Four Nations final on home soil last year but found themselves outclassed by a ruthless Australia in the decider. The Poms are once again not expected to make it to the final two, but the efforts of NRL imports Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess should leave teammates inspired. Both would know the Aussies and Kiwis are indeed mere mortals who, like every other, do make errors and can be beaten. If England play without fear and hesitation, they could surprise a few.
But there a number of weaknesses in this English outfit. They are dreadfully inconsistent across the 80 minutes, as highlighted by their second half capitulation in their 18-all draw against the Maori last weekend. England's fringe defence is also prone to poor reads which spells trouble against the slick backlines of NZ and Australia. They also lack a genuine playmaker. However, young halfback Sam Tomkins looked promising in the Maori warm up fixture. The 21-year old Wigan Warrior showed he has the running game to pose questions.
England's strength lies unequivocally in the forwards. An explosive backrow trio of Burgess, Ellis and veteran Sean O'Loughlin is coupled with the endurance of props captain James Graham and Stuart Fielden, who will lay a solid platform. The big question is whether England have the talent in the halves and backs to fully capitalise.
Papua New Guinea
Realistically, Papau New Guinea, won't win a game but their involvement in the competition must not be belittled. The Kumuls bring an injection of passion and spirit that will be worth the price of admission alone. The side represents a diverse nation - it is reported that PNG contains nearly 1,000 tribes exist with over 800 different languages - united by their religious obsession for rugby league.
PNG are renowned for their reckless physicality (the example of Jesse Joe Parker suffering a fractured eye socket in a try saving tackle against England in the 2008 World Cup lingers in my mind). You can be assured each player will put everything on the line.
But their squad is an unknown quantity. Nearly all 24 members have been drafted from the domestic PNG competition. Cronulla's Paul Aiton is skipper and the only NRL representative, while 32-year old Hull Kingston Rovers prop Makali Aizue is the sole English Super League player. One who I have seen is the Queensland Cup's Rod Griffin. The Northern Pride second rower has impressed with his solid defence and ability to find a gap on the edge of the ruck.
As an unashamed fan of international rugby league, the Four Nations is an opportunity to not just see the cream of the crop but also those from across the rugby league spectrum, who simply play for their love of the sport.