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"You wanna get high (altitude)?" - England and New Zealand face off in Denver test
Unable to penetrate the Australian defence in last year's World Cup final, England will be looking to gauge their progress on the international stage against a new-look New Zealand side. Returning to America for the first time since a Friendly match against the USA finished in a 110-0 score line prior to the 2000 World Cup, the opportunity to spread the rugby league gospel abroad appears to have been embraced by the English players as a means of laying the ground work for the 2025 tournament to be played in the United States and Canada. Recognising the importance of playing regular matches against high-quality opponents, coach Wayne Bennett has retained a majority of players that have featured for England over the past two years, while introducing three new faces - Jake Connor, Tommy Makinson and Luke Thompson - as a succession plan for the side's aging veterans. Naming five Australian-based players after recalled front rower George Burgess was ruled out with injury, the foundations of a successful team can be seen in the forwards named by Bennett, but as has been a major issue for a long time, the lack of outside backs and playmakers on par with Australia and New Zealand has prevented England from becoming the premier international team.
Having been humiliated in a qualifying final loss to Fiji last November, the Kiwis will be intent on making amends under the guidance of dual premiership winning coach Michael Maguire. In his first test in charge of the New Zealand national team, the former South Sydney and Wigan mentor has been forced to deal with the fallout of a number of former representatives opting to play for second tier countries, as well as resistance from NRL coaches in refusing to release the likes of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Shaun Johnson for the North American venture. Naming six uncapped players as part of a competitive 19-man team, the Kiwis appear to have struck a blow against Samoa by selecting Leeson Ah Mau, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Ken Maumalo and Herman Ese'ese for their New Zealand debuts; however due to the success experienced at last year's World Cup, the Tongan-aligned contingent headed up by Jason Taumalolo remain unavailable. Holding a strong record against England with seven wins from the eleven tests played over the past decade, the challenges of achieving success with a limited preparation and acclimatising to the high altitude conditions will be evident for the inexperienced Kiwis as they head into the match as underdogs against the ever-improving English.
Last meeting: Four Nations, 2016 - England 16 New Zealand 17
Who to watch: While a number of English forwards have proven their class in the toughest global domestic league, the number of outside backs opting to take a punt down under has been remarkably small with even fewer recent success stories. Contracted to reigning Challenge Cup holders Hull FC until the end of 2020, Jake Connor has gained plenty of admirers with his versatility across the backline and halves to suggest that the 23-year-old could be headed to the NRL in the near future. Debuting at age 18 with Huddersfield in 2013, Connor's proficiency in covering multiple positions could make a big impact in Denver, providing England with an exciting backline talent to continue the prolific try-scoring feats of aging wingers Ryan Hall and Jermaine McGilvary. As one of the youngest players in Wayne Bennett's 19-man squad there is still a degree of uncertainty surrounding Connor's place in the final side, however having garnered plenty of praise for his spirited approach, the young outside back could well be the fresh injection needed to topple the Kiwis.
By far the most experienced member of the New Zealand side selected by Michael Maguire, Issac Luke will have a point to prove having been handed a representative recall by his former club coach. Left out of the Kiwi's World Cup squad by David Kidwell last year, the 31-year-old hooker will relish the opportunity to take a leading role amongst his fresh-faced teammates. Making his international debut ten years ago, the 40-test veteran has been in fine form with the Warriors after copping intense scrutiny for his form across all levels in the years following his move across the Tasman. Having been the youngest member of the New Zealand team that upset the Kangaroos in the 2008 World Cup final, Luke finds himself in a unique position as the veteran player looked up to by his younger teammates, in the same way he did a decade ago. With the newfound responsibility of guiding the next generation of Kiwis, the crafty number nine will have no shortage of motivation to put in a strong performance on US soil.
The favourite: With slightly less travel time in crossing the Atlantic and the foundations of a successful team laid over the past two seasons, England are expected to prove too strong for the new-look Kiwis.
My tip: As a result of the varying approaches taken by both countries - England looking to build upon their World Cup final finish and New Zealand out to rebuild for the future - the stability and power of the forward pack selected by Wayne Bennett should be the decisive factor. England by 10.
1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2. Jamayne Isaako 3. Esan Marsters 4. Peta Hiku 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Kodi Nikorima 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Issac Luke 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 15. Raymond Faitala-Mariner 12. Joseph Tapine 13. Martin Taupau 11. James Fisher-Harris 14. Slade Griffin 16. Herman Ese’ese 17. Leeson Ah Mau 18. Jordan Kahu 19. Isaac Liu
1. John Bateman 2. Sam Burgess 3. Thomas Burgess 4. Jake Connor 5. James Graham 6. Ryan Hall 7. Chris Hill 8. Jonny Lomax 9. Tom Makinson 10. Jermaine McGillvary 11. Sean O'Loughlin 12. Mark Percival 13. Stefan Ratchford 14. James Roby 15. Scott Taylor 16. Luke Thompson 17. Gareth Widdop 18. George Williams 19. Elliot Whitehead
Referees: Ben Thaler; Sideline Officials: Chris Kendall, Chris McMillan; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell;