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Preview: Australia v New Zealand
The first instalment of this year?s Tri-Nations contest gets underway tomorrow night under lights at Telstra Stadium, where bitter Trans-Tasman rivalry is reignited on the rugby league arena.
For the first time in a long time, both teams are looking very competitive and the fans who brave the cavernous surrounds of Homebush will be in for a real treat.
Whilst there are a number of rookies in both teams making their debuts alongside the usual suspects, all eyes will be on the two number seven?s in this match when they make their return to the international level after extended periods away.
Andrew Johns and Stacey Jones missed the NRL semi finals this season, although Johns did have a short stint in the U.K. with Warrington. It is likely, however, that these two men will hold the key to their nation?s fortunes.
This will be Jones? final game on Australian soil after retiring from the Warriors to head to France next season. He has had a distinguished career over the years, playing in many triumphs for the Kiwis but not as many as he would like.
He poses a real threat to the dominance Australia has maintained for a number of years and would dearly like to inflict a bit of pain on the Kangaroos. With a strong pack boasting Wiki and Rauhihi up front, Jones may get some room to marshal his backs and start dictating terms.
Out wide, debutant Manu Vatuvei gets his first taste of the big time. A young Warrior with the world at his feet, Manu has a similar frame to Lesley Vainikolo and once mature will take delight in menacing opponents at will. He stands opposite Matt King who?s no midget himself and it should prove to be an absorbing contest.
Wests Tigers centre Paul Whatuira pairs Clinton Toopi with Nigel Vagana shifting to pivot, where he has had relative success at the Sharks. He will be looking to run the ball wide at every chance and it also gives the Kiwis plenty of options if things need a shake-up or injuries set in.
They get to take on the interesting combination of Mark Gasnier and Brent Tate. ?Gaz? and his fleet-footed ways bear a contrast to Tate?s hard, straight running style and will offer different opportunities in attack for the Aussies and Kiwi?s alike.
The New Zealand backrow is pretty handy, with Sione Faumuina locking the scrum behind boom Panther Frank Pritchard and Storm stalwart David Kidwell. This could be where the game is won and lost. With Kennedy, Fitzgibbon and O?Donnell donning the green and gold there are sure to be fireworks.
The New Zealand bench is also a strength, with a blend of youth, experience and explosiveness set to test the Aussies when they are introduced to the game. Rookie David Faiumu gets his first cap alongside old heads in Roy Asotasi, Nathan Cayless and David Solomona.
The Aussie bench is a little lacklustre, with Jason Ryles providing the only real impact. Gower, Waterhouse and Ryan all missed the semi?s and I can?t see them adding anything to the mix.
But the duo of Lockyer and Johns could provide for mouth-watering displays of attacking rugby league. They have yet to form around the scrum-base in a Test match and if they can work well off one another it could spell mayhem for the Kiwi?s.
Johns, reflective since returning from his knee reconstruction, has repeatedly stated his desire to make up for lost time. This will be one of those occasions where he will relish playing in front if a parochial home crowd and will come into his own.
Given this I think the Aussies will take the game, but if New Zealand can gain the upper hand in the forwards then they can certainly press the Kangaroos and push for an upset.