Sport Rugby League Australia searching for redemption in Manchester
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Australia searching for redemption in Manchester

Cameron Smith and Simon Mannering
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The cakewalks are over… Samoa, Italy, the Cook Islands and the United States have left town… It’s the business end of the Rugby League World Cup. Early Sunday morning (Australia time), the Kangaroos and reigning World Cup holders New Zealand will do battle in the World Cup final at Old Trafford, Manchester.

Some of the best players on the planet will face off. Australia boasts all-time greats Greg Inglis, Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater, plus such champions as Jarryd Hayne, Cooper Cronk and Paul Gallen. The outrageously-talented Andrew Fifita and Daly Cherry-Evans are on the bench, for goodness sake.  

Yet the Kiwis have the cattle to match the Australians in Sonny Bill Williams (with England’s Sam Burgess the world’s best forward), firebrand prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, pestiferous hooker Issac Luke, tough and classy five eighth Kieran Foran, the freakishly-talented winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and match-winning halfback Shaun Johnson.

The Kangaroos are favored to win. They go into the match having barely broken a sweat in most of their lead-up games. In their last four matches, against minnows the United States, Ireland and Fiji twice, they amassed 210 points and had just 2 scored against them. They’ll be relatively injury-free, their attack finely-calibrated and defence unbreached after their string of romps, and they’ll have the desire to win, being desperate to reclaim from the Kiwis what they believe is their rightful mantle as kings of international rugby league.

And yet…

Easy games are not ideal preparation for do-or-die finals, and there’s no doubt coach Tim Sheens would trade his side’s runaway wins for hard-fought matches. Australia may be underdone and ripe for a black and white ambush. Throughout last weekend’s semi-final against Fiji, as they raced through tissue-thin, ill-organised defence to notch try after try, the players laughed and joked among themselves.

And there are other worrying signs. Despite denials, reports persist that the Manchester-based Australian side is split into Queensland and NSW camps, and some players have made it known that they’re bored and homesick. Such ennui may have manifested itself in a couple of nightclub incidents (Josh Papalii was mugged and Billy Slater KO’d an obnoxious drunk), and Cameron Smith and second rower Nate Myles reportedly all but came to blows.

In contrast, New Zealand barely scraped home in the last 20 seconds of an intense and ferocious semi against a Sam Burgess-inspired England. Every Kiwi was physically and emotionally battered after the encounter.

Perhaps that match will leave the Kiwis too flat to compete with the razzle-dazzle Kangaroos and they’ll share the fate of Australia’s other opponents and be blown away.

Or could it be that their tougher road to the final has left them battle-hardened and psychologically stronger than their untested opponents? Certainly in Williams, Waerea-Hargreaves, Foran, Luke, Frank-Paul Nu’uausala and captain Simon Mannering they have men with their eyes on the prize, hard nuts who live to trample opponents or bury them in train-wreck tackles. And while they have no one of the calibre of Inglis, Slater and Thurston in their backline, New Zealand has the magic to match their forwards’ muscle in the speed and elusiveness of Tuivasa-Sheck, Johnson and fullback Kevin Locke, plus the skill set of centre Dean Whare, whose back-flick pass while in the air over the sideline for Tuivasa-Sheck’s try against England was breathtaking.

The crowd will also come into play in the Old Trafford cauldron. With 90 per cent of those at Old Trafford bound to be English, the boorish words and deeds of a handful of Australian Test cricketers 18,000km away in Brisbane will all but ensure that the vast majority will be cheering for a Kiwi victory.

WHAT NZ MUST DO TO WIN

Their huge, mobile forwards must dominate the Australian pack, making them back-pedal and rush their plays, depriving them of the ability to create a platform from which creative Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston can unleash the speed and power of serial try-scorers Greg Inglis, Michael Jennings, Billy Slater, Brett Morris and Darius Boyd. Should the Kiwis win the forward battle, they have quicksilver backs in Johnson, Locke, Whare, Tuivasa-Sheck and the 112kg, 191cm winger Manu “The Beast” Vatuvei to again cheat the ‘Roos of World Cup glory.

WHAT AUSTRALIA MUST DO TO WIN

New Zealand’s behemoths will try to draw the Australians into trench warfare, but the Kangaroos must turn the other cheek and play a fast, wide game with deft passing, strategic kicking and quick play-the-balls to run the bigger Kiwi forwards, who’ll still be feeling the effects of last week’s brutal encounter, off their feet. If given time and space to work their magic, the Aussies have more points in them than their opponents. In defence, the Kangaroos must stop Luke’s incisive dummy half darts and Williams’ miracle offloads.