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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Pacific underdogs eye off opening round upset
Expected to qualify for the final on the first weekend of December, the Kiwis are set to face a tough road throughout the course of the World Cup. With the well-documented defection of seven eligible Kiwis to Tonga, along with the decision to uphold the bans on Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor, coach David Kidwell has been left to make do with a side set to undertake a period of necessary transition. Having struggled to capture the form that saw New Zealand hoist three trophies over the past decade, the Kiwis will be looking to inject a host of younger players into their ranks to rejuvenate a side that were embarrassed by spirit of Scotland in last year's Four Nations. Naming debutants Brad Takairangi, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Isaac Liu and Danny Levi as part of the first-choice 17, Kodi Nikorima has been handed the initial opportunity to partner Shaun Johnson in the halves, while in the absence of Issac Luke, veteran Thomas Leuluai has been selected as starting hooker. In an effort to mitigate the threat posed by the size of the Samoans, the selection of three middle forwards off the bench appears to be a calculated move on Kidwell's behalf in order to play to the sides attacking strengths.
Emerging as a candidate to challenge the top three nations following a stirring showing in the Four Nations three years ago, Samoa will be hopeful of continuing their development under coach Kristian Woolf. While the absence of 2013 World Cup breakout star Anthony Milford will hinder the side's potency, the mixture of speed and size should ensure all opposing teams are wary of the threat posed by the Pacific nation. Producing an underwhelming showing against England in the mid-season test, Samoa will be optimistic about their chances against the more fancied Kiwis, but will need to ensure attention to completing basic fundamentals does not hinder their chances of producing an upset. Naming a squad filled with plenty of promise, an unfashionable spine of Young Tounamaipea, Joseph Paulo, Ben Roberts and Jazz Tevaga will need to be at their best to ensure the likes of Junior Paulo, Josh Papalii and Frank Pritchard are able to make the most of their size advantage over the Kiwis, while the long-serving centre combination of Tim Lafai and Joseph Leilua can expect plenty of opportunities to reek havoc on the edges.
Last RLWC meeting: Group B 2013 - New Zealand 42 Samoa 24
Last International meeting: Four Nations 2014 - New Zealand 14 Samoa 12
Who to watch: Coming off his poorest season in first grade, Shaun Johnson will be looking to use the Kiwi's World Cup campaign as a means of rejuvenating his career. Much like a young Jarryd Hayne almost a decade ago, the promise shown early on has struggled to manifest in recent times and with the chance to escape the weekly pressures of the NRL, the change in environment could reinvigorate his stagnant career. While still capable of conjuring moments of individual brilliance, the 27-year-old halfback has failed to capitalise on opportunities in recent times, with his record in International rugby league producing a win and a lacklustre draw from his past seven appearances. Having shown his class to step up when called upon in previous years, Johnson's form in the World Cup shapes as a pivotal point in the direction the Kiwis choose to take moving forward. With the likes of Kodi Nikorima, Te Maire Martin and the Tongan-affiliated duo of Tuimoala Lolohea and Ata Hingano all pushing claims as New Zealand playmakers, Johnson has to step up if the Kiwis are any chance of challenging the Kangaroos.
As one of the most experienced players in the Samoan ranks, the return of Ben Roberts to the Southern Hemisphere should instill a steadying hand to guide the size of the Pacific nation. Much-maligned throughout his time in the NRL, the former New Zealand playmaker has spent the past three seasons with Castleford, which has seen him help the Tigers to their most successful season in 2017. At 32-years-old, Roberts unquestionably lacks the inherent skill of the Australian halves, but as player capable of directing the likes of Joseph Leilua, Josh Papalii and Frank Pritchard into attacking positions, his role within the side may prove to be the most significant in the chances of Samoa progressing beyond the group stage. With an exciting backline and imposing forward pack, the ultimate downfall of the Samoans over the past decade has been the lack of quality playmakers. While it is unlikely anyone would suggest Roberts is capable of upstaging the likes of Cooper Cronk or Cameron Smith, for Samoa to thrive, Roberts has to guide the side in a way that makes best use of the strengths present throughout the squad.
The favourite: While their troubles have been well documented, the professionalism of the Kiwis has them favoured to come away with an opening round win.
My tip: New Zealand will more than likely come away with a win on Saturday night, but I suspect the Samoans have more improvement in them over the course of the World Cup campaign. New Zealand by 14.
1. Roger Tuivasa-sheck 2. Dallin Watene Zelezniak 3. Gerard Beale 4. Brad Takairangi 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Kodi Nikorima 7. Shaun Johnson 8. Martin Taupau 9. Thomas Leuluai 18. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 13. Simon Mannering 12. Joseph Tapine 10. Adam Blair 14. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 15. Russell Packer 16. Isaac Liu 17. Danny Levi
1. Young Tonumaipea 2. Peter Mata'utia 3. Timoteo Lafai 4. Joseph Leilua 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Joseph Paulo 7. Ben Roberts 8. Junior Paulo 9. Jazz Tevaga 10. Sam Lisone 11. Joshua Papalii 12. Frank Pritchard 13. Leeson Ah Mau 14. Pita Godinet 15. Herman Essese 16. Suaia Matagi 17. Bunty Afoa