Tri-Nations Final Preview: Australia v New Zealand

We?ve arrived at the final destination for the 2006 Tri-Nations tournament with the two Antipodean sides set to meet in an almighty clash.

It?s finally time to put aside all the controversy that has embalmed this year?s series and get down to business for 80 pulsating minutes of Rugby League, putting to rest who the greatest team in the world is.

This will be the seventh match of International Rugby League to be held at Aussie Stadium since the ground came into use in 1988. It?s a shame that the anticipated crowd for this game is well down on expectations and ground capacity, which will probably result in Brisbane hosting the 2008 World Cup Final.

Let?s take a look at the teams, with the current World Champions first up:

New Zealand: Brent Webb, Shontayne Hape, Iosia Soliola, Steve Matai, Manu Vatuvei, Nigel Vagana, Stacey Jones, Ruben Wiki (c), Dene Halatau, Roy Asotasi, David Kidwell, Simon Mannering, David Fa'alogo

Interchange: Motu Tony, Nathan Cayless, Adam Blair, Frank Pritchard

No changes here to a side that belted the Lions a fortnight ago. They were hungry for points and ran over the top of Great Britain giving a summary of what they are capable of.

Unfortunately, all of New Zealand had to sit by and cheer for Australia last week. Poor buggers!

Moving onto the Aussies now?

Australia: Karmichael Hunt, Brent Tate, Mark Gasnier, Justin Hodges, Greg Inglis, Darren Lockyer (c), Johnathan Thurston, Willie Mason, Cameron Smith, Petero Civoniceva, Andrew Ryan, Nathan Hindmarsh, Luke O'Donnell

Interchange: Shaun Berrigan, Anthony Tupou, Mark O'Meley, Brent Kite

There?s a couple of changes here with Mason coming straight back into the frontrow at the expense of Kaufusi. Tate has held his wing position and Kite moves back to the bench.

Tupou has also retained his spot ahead of Thaiday, which is still an absolute travesty. I know Tupou had a good game in Brisbane but the whole team played well. There?s a suggestion out there that Mason might come off the bench with Kite starting which isn?t a bad idea. It would make up for some of the impact lost through the omission of Thaiday.

The Decision

This game presents an interesting challenge for both sides and whilst Australia head in as favourites, this could assist the Kiwi?s.

Overall I think the Kangaroos look the stronger side. They have a genuine five-eighth and hooker, who are both in career-best form.

Aside from that the teams are fairly similar.

Hunt and Webb more or less cancel one another out, each possessing good overall skills and pace. Similarly they are both a little shaky making big tackles at the back but if I had to choose between them I?d say Webb returns the ball better.

Both teams have big, mobile backs but it?s fair to say Australia is more skilled. Soliola and Matai held their own against Gasnier and Hodges in the last meeting, with a freakish passage of running by Inglis breaking the game open.

It?s hard to split the props with Wiki and Asotasi at least the equal of Mason and Civoniceva. I think the Aussies have a slight advantage in the backrow with Hindmarsh, Ryan and O?Donnell very well rounded. For the Kiwis, Kidwell is obviously the more senior player with Mannering and Fa?alogo both rookies at this level but the latter is performing strongly.

I?m still not convinced with Mannering, even though he did play well against the Lions. If the rest of the pack lays the foundations then it makes things a lot easier for him.

Off the bench?and again things are locked up.

Berrigan and Tony are similar in their versatility. Kite and O?Meley come up against Cayless and Blair with a struck match between them again. I?d probably lean towards the Aussies a little here but Pritchard matching up on Tupou evens things out. Both players will look to exploit the tired props in the fringes of the rucks towards the latter stages of the first half and the middle of the second.

This brings us to the halves and hookers.

Australia has a distinct advantage here. The trio of Lockyer, Thurston and Smith are proven champions with three Dally M?s and two Churchill medals between them. They are all pure footballers and can adapt to changing situations throughout the game with ease.

For New Zealand, the combination of Vagana, Jones and Halatau is well behind in terms of skill but not heart. Jones is going very well at the moment and back to arguably his career best form. Since returning to the southern hemisphere he has improved with every Test Match and it?s easy to imagine he will lift again for this final, reputedly his last International.

I say that because he came in and out of retirement several times during last year?s tournament and most people assumed the 24-nil victory in the 2005 final would be his last appearance for the Kiwis.

Looking at Vagana, he?s always tried hard at five-eighth even if he?s not the preferred option and Halatau won?t let them down even if he fails to add little more than adequate service from dummy half. He may act as another forward when Tony comes on though, which could work in this game.

Traditionally, Australia would look to wear down their opponent?s pack and then spin the ball wide, but New Zealand has proven themselves capable of squaring off in the forwards against Australia in three of the past four games they?ve played (this year?s ANZAC Test being the exception).

The likely tactics for New Zealand will be to bash their way through the middle and this has worked on occasion for them. For Vagana to be useful he will need to run straight lines at the defence and try to break the line which has also worked in the past. I?d like to see Webb used a little more up close as his creativity is sometimes underrated.

So this leaves us with who has the better halves, which is Australia. For this reason alone I think the Kangaroos will reclaim their crown as World Champions of Rugby League. The Aussies really want this title but the choice of referee (Klein) won?t do them any favours and again could help out the Kiwis.

Whilst a Kiwi victory is not out of the question by any means, and they are in very good form, I get the feeling that this Australian side has been storing up plenty of revenge material for 12 months.