Game I Preview: New Zealand v Australia

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The first Tri-Nations game for the 2006 season gets underway this Saturday night at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland, where the New Zealand Kiwis play host to the Australian Kangaroos in a highly anticipated clash that will surely have the locals drooling over the prospect of a boilover right about now.

This is the fourth official Tri-Nations tournament, with the inaugural competition in 1999 being claimed by the Aussies, although it only consisted of three games and a final. Australia also won the 2004 series but the Kiwis are the current holders of the title, taking out the 2005 tournament with a convincing 24-0 victory over Australia at Elland Road, Leeds.

Overall the two nations have played 95 times, Australia has won 66, New Zealand 27 and there have been 2 draws. The tournament proper returns to the southern hemisphere for the first time since the 1999 series, with the past 2 series kicking-off in the south pacific before heading to the north of England to be played out.

New Zealand do have a bit of a knack at winning on home soil and the opening contests present yet another opportunity for them to get one up on the Aussies. Whilst they have won a few in Auckland over the past few years, the general trend has been for a close game. Plus, with the replay set for a Kiwi-sympathetic crowd in Melbourne, the Aussies might not have it all their own way.

Let?s take a look at some recent games in the Land of the Long White Cloud:

Game II 2005: Australia 28 def New Zealand 26 (Mt Smart, Auckland)
Game I 2004: New Zealand 16 drew with Australia 16 (North Harbour, Auckland)
Centenary Test 2003: New Zealand 30 def Australia 16 (North Harbour, Auckland)
International 2002: Australia 32 def New Zealand 24 (WestpacTrust, Wellington)
International 2001: Australia 28 def New Zealand 10 (WestpacTrust, Wellington)
Tri-Nations Final 1999: Australia 22 def New Zealand 20 (Mt Smart, Auckland)
Game I 1999: New Zealand 24 def Australia 22 (Mt Smart, Auckland)

The most recent contest between the two Nations resulted in a 50-12 thumping of the Kiwis by Australia, but since then there has been many changes to both sides. The other relevant statistics prior to that are the 2005 New Zealand victory (38-28 in Sydney) and five years earlier when the Kiwi?s capitulated 52-0, also in Sydney.

You probably can?t read too much into the two thrashings as the Kiwis have traditionally struggled in the ANZAC Tests which are usually played on Aussie turf and geared towards the home team. And the recent Australian victory in New Zealand was coming off their shock loss in Sydney, a game that ultimately kept the 2005 series alive.

Looking at the two teams there are some interesting changes, notably the retirement of Andrew Johns and Ben Kennedy for Australia and the return of Stacey Jones for the Kiwis.

Firstly, the Aussies?

Australian Team: Karmichael Hunt, Matt King, Mark Gasnier, Justin Hodges, Greg Inglis, Darren Lockyer (c), Johnathan Thurston, Willie Mason, Cameron Smith, Petero Civoniceva, Luke O'Donnell, Nathan Hindmarsh, Reni Maitua
Interchange: Mark O'Meley, Shaun Berrigan, Andrew Ryan, Brent Kite

Inglis, Hodges, Smith, Maitua and Kite are all making their debuts for the Aussies, with Hunt likely to be feeling as though he is too, after getting poleaxed by Pritchard back in May and spending the night in hospital.

Tahu has succumbed to injury throughout the year, as has Cooper giving Inglis and Hodges their opportunities. Thurston moves from the bench into the halfback?s role, with Maitua replacing Kennedy at the base of the scrum. Buderus will sit the tournament out with the imminent birth of his first child, allowing Dally M Player of the Year Smith to debut at hooker.

The bench has changed around a bit with O?Meley the only survivor from the ANZAC clash. Menzies has since retired and Simpson has decided to sit this one out. It?s a bit of a worry here I think with Berrigan, Ryan and Kite unlikely to provide much impact.

Now for the Kiwis?

New Zealand Team: Brent Webb, Tame Tupou, Iosia Soliola, Steve Matai, Manu Vatuvei, Nigel Vagana, Stacey Jones, Ruben Wiki (c), Dene Halatau, Roy Asotasi, David Kidwell, Tony Puletua, Simon Mannering
Interchange: Jerome Ropati, Nathan Cayless, Adam Blair, Frank Pritchard

There?s been some significant changes here, firstly in the backline with Webb, Tupou and Vagana the only remaining players to have taken part in the ANZAC Test. Matai, who was named in the original 19-man squad for the ANZAC Test gets his chance in the centres after a very impressive semi-finals campaign for Manly. Likewise Soliola, one of the few Roosters players who can hold his head high this season, gets his first shot for his country.

Vagana is again at five-eighth, a ploy that has had mixed success, with Jones returning from the south of France to provide to team with direction. In the forwards, Asotasi takes the spot of Jason Cayless with Wiki again captaining the side ? his 52nd appearance - and Halatau replaces Faiumu as rake in an interesting selection. The backrow has lost some steam however, with incumbent Kidwell now being partnered by Tony Puletua and Mannering (also his first cap). Anderson and SBW are no longer there leaving some aggression behind.

The bench is interesting though with two debutants (Ropati and Blair) and only Pritchard remaining from earlier in the year. Nathan Cayless should provide a steady hand with Blair and Pritchard offering plenty of impact. Ropati is a lively one as well and had an exuberant finish to the season for the Warriors.

The Decision

Initially I favour Australia as they are fielding a very strong backline but you should never write the Kiwis off when they?re playing at home. Recent victories in Sydney and last year?s Tri-Nations final will give them plenty of self belief, and given the result earlier in the year, there is probably less expectation on the shoulders of New Zealand to defend their crown than there is for Australia reclaiming it.

The area New Zealand should be looking to exploit is the forwards. Wiki and Asotasi are fantastic props who are the equal of Mason and Civoniceva. Smith is a much better hooker than Halatau though, who I already have questions marks over after a stunted season where he only played 14 games. Perhaps McClennan is looking to use him as an extra forward, a ploy that could help them gain field advantage but could hinder direction out of dummy half.

New Zealand does have an experience edge, with 100 more Test caps in their side than Australia. And when they take the field on Saturday night, the Kangaroos will have blooded 11 debutants in the Test arena this year. That?s significant, but when you look at the five guys making their debut (Hodges, Inglis, Smith, Maitua and Kite) they are by no means rookies in the game.

Weather permitting, I think the Aussies will win. If the forwards cancel one another out I think the Aussie backs will overpower their counterparts. Providing Gasnier is injury free, he and Hodges should make a mean pairing with Inglis and King no slouches either. It will be interesting to see how Matai and Soliola go as if they do get some room to move they can be destructive players. Vatuvei and Tupou are enormous fellas as well, ensuring a physical contest in the backs.

A Kiwi victory with throw the entire tournament open and if they can win the contest in the middle of the park and frustrate the Aussies, they may well do so. But I?m going to stick with Australia as it is simply one of the best backlines we?ve ever seen them field.

A further factor will be the motivation behind Ricky Stuart to win this tournament. Following on from his dumping at the Roosters, the Australian coach will be very keen to finish the year on a high note.

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