Game 2: New Zealand v Australia

Six days is a long time in Rugby League?

After what is being described as a humiliating loss to the Kiwis, Australia will be out to level proceedings this Friday night when they take the field at Ericsson Stadium to play New Zealand in the return leg of the 2005 Tri-Nations Tournament.

It comes as no surprise that dribble has flowed so freely in the Australian media this week following New Zealand?s victory. After all, we should never lose to the Kiwi?s, right?

The funny thing about Australia is that once we dominate a sport we?re doing it to the detriment of that sport. In the Anzac Test of 2000 when we won 52-0, and again in the 2003 Trans Tasman Test where we won 48-6 people were calling the International game dead. So two years later and we?ve lost our second game in 12 starts, Australia finds itself in a crisis. Spare me.

There has been a growing chorus of people in the media calling for the head of Kangaroo coach Wayne Bennett (and of course, they know best). Even NRL director Gorden Tallis has chimed in with a theory that the halves combination just isn?t up to scratch. Well, with a total of 45 Test Matches between them doing their own thing, Darren Lockyer and Andrew Johns finally found themselves paired together for the first time. Anyone other than me fancy that they might need a little bit of time to get used to one another?

What?s more, it was New Zealand?s first victory in Sydney for 46 years. Geez, do you reckon they were due?

And now we have the ARL pouting on about the size of the field which New Zealand might mark out for tomorrow night. Last time I checked both teams played on the same strip of grass. Get a grip Geoff Carr, the forwards are still allowed to run up the middle of the field!

Let?s not forget that New Zealand dominate another code of football (which many of us really don?t like to mention) incredibly similar to Rugby League and sooner or later they were bound to hit their straps in the 13-a-side code. But I?m not suggesting that the Kiwi?s have peaked, in fact I think they can get better. If they could field a full strength team with the likes of Sonny-Bill Williams, Lesley Vainikolo, Benji Marshall, Dene Halatau and a Paul brother or two they transform from the bullied to the bully.

And then there?s the Nathan Hindmarsh fiasco. He was ruled out a fortnight ago but has mysteriously recovered to take the place of a winger. Will the madness ever end!

Now that I have sufficiently vented my spleen let?s talk about the game.

This one will be a real bump and grind affair methinks. Australia will want to play smart and safe footy to ensure that they are still alive in the Tri-Nations competition when they head to the UK. If they lose you may well see a few more emails circulating with photos of the boys at the Church.

On the other side of the ledger there is a lot at stake for the Kiwis. It will be Stacey Jones?s last game for New Zealand and on home soil, meaning there will be a full house awaiting the champion halfback. They know that if they knock off the Aussies they are virtually assured of a Grand Final berth and can get their house in order while they wait for the Kangaroos and Lions to sort one another out.

Player-wise, both teams have made changes - some forced, some not.

New Zealand has surprisingly dropped second-rower Frank Pritchard and reserve prop Nathan Cayless for reasons I?m not quite sure of. Pritchard was sound last Saturday night and I must admit to being a little shocked, but it may well be a player rotation scheme. In a bit of a reshuffle, David Solomona comes off the bench and will start with human-cannonballs Iafaeta Palea'aesina and Tony Puletua added to the interchanges, with both sure to make an impact upon proceedings.

The two other changes were forced, with Shontayne Hape and Motu Tony replacing injured players Clinton Toopi and Lance Hohaia respectively.

For the Aussies, there has been only one forced change with Matt Cooper coming into the team for injured winger Timana Tahu which sees Brent Tate shift to the wing. Craig Gower and Andrew Ryan have been dropped from the bench with Trent Barrett and Mark O?Meley being added. The use of Barrett will be particularly interesting, with some suggestions putting him at lock.

I?m going to tip the Aussies to spoil the party in New Zealand but this game will be close. The Kangaroos haven?t lost two in a row to the Kiwi?s since 1969-1971 (unless you count the Super League Tests which no one does). The pressure on the Aussies will be huge and there is no doubt at all that this one will go down to the wire.

It always does in Auckland.