Last year England and New Zealand went to battle in a terrific three-game test series which England narrowly won in the final game.
Now, as the Four Nations gets underway the English and the Kiwis are set to do battle again at Huddersfield John Smiths Stadium in what will be a crucial game following Australia’s 54-12 victory over Scotland on Friday.
Wayne Bennett has chosen Castleford half-back Luke Gale over Wigan’s George Williams after Gale’s debut last weekend in a warm-up game against France. Fellow Wigan
teammate Liam Farrell has also been left out with Elliot Whitehead and John Bateman occupying the second-row. Jonny Lomax will also start at full-back over Warrington’s Stefan Ratchford.
New Zealand aren’t expected to make any changes from the side who lost 26-6 a fortnight ago to Australia. Gerard Beale and Greg Eastwood are the two men to drop from the original 19-man squad.
Even though England managed to narrowly edge out the Kiwi’s in last year’s three-game test series it is almost impossible to favour one team. New Zealand do come into the game on the back of a 26-6 loss to Australia which may have dampened their spirits whereas England earned a comfortable 6-40 victory over France in Avignon. With both sides evenly matched it is likely to be a terrible mistake or a moment of magic which will decide this game.
Bennett has made the call to start Gale over Williams despite Williams featuring in last year’s test series. Gale, who has had a terrific season with Castleford, made his England debut last weekend against France and put in a solid performance however it is yet to be seen whether he has the quality to perform on the international stage against a side as strong as the Kiwi’s. He will be accompnanied in the halves by Gareth Widdop who is now England’s most experienced half and will need to take on the responsibility of organising his side.
While Gale and Widdop may take time to gel Thomas Leuluai and Shaun Johnson should already be accustomed to each other. Leuluai will take the role of organiser and is an experienced and composed player in the halves. Johnson is the creative spark who can turn a game on its head with one simple sidestep if England give the Warriors half-back room he will glide straight through England’s defensive line as he did in the World Cup semi-final three years ago.
Down the middle a tonne of quality NRL forwards will clash with England closing the gap in this department in recent years. James Graham, Elliot Whitehead and the Burgess trio offer England an immense amount of power and aggression which proved dividend last year. However, the Kiwis will match the English in the pack with the likes of Kevin Proctor, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Adam Blair and captain Jesse Bromwich. Jason Taumololo was the top metre-maker in the NRL last season his battle with Sam Burgess at thirteen will be key.
Josh Hodgson has had a sensational season with Canberra and is possibly the most rounded hooker in the world at the moment and in Daryl Clark England have a hooker who is lethal against a tiring defence. Isaac Luke will start at hooker for New Zealand and if he manages to keep his cool he will be instrumental.
England: Lomax, McGillvary, Watkins, Sarginson, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Whitehead, Bateman, S. Burgess.
Interchanges: Clark, G. Burgess, T. Burgess, Cooper.
New Zealand: Kahu, Nightingale, Kata, Kenny-Dowall, Rapana; Leuluai, Johnson; Bromwich, Luke, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Harris, Taumalolo.
Interchanges: Brown, Taupau, Ma’u, Blair.
Last Five Meetings
- England 20-14 New Zealand – Test Match – 14th November 2015.
- England 2-9 New Zealand – Test Match – 7th November 2015.
- England 26-12 New Zealand – Test Match – 1st November 2015.
- New Zealand 16-14 England – Four Nations – 8th November 2014.
- England 18-20 New Zealand – World Cup – 23rd November 2013.
With Australia comfortably beating Scotland last night and expected to win all of their games it means that this opening game is pivotal for both England and New Zealand as the team who wins is likely to reach the final.
Personally, I believe England will come on top in the forward battle with the likes of Graham, Whitehead and the Burgess’ experienced against their NRL counterparts however in the backs New Zealand have the advantage. Johnson and Leuluai are much more experienced than Gale and Widdop. Centres Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Solomone Kata could cause Kallum Watkins and Dan Sarginson serious issues out wide depending on the opportunities that come their way.
However, I do think that Bennett will have prepared England for all the threats the Kiwis have to offer and England, in similar style to last year, will come away with a narrow victory.
Prediction: England 26-22 New Zealand.