With only one more sleep to go before the Rugby League Four Nations commences at Suncorp Stadium, let us take a look through the squads of each nation, their preparation leading up to the tournament, and which team is best poised to raise the cup on November 15th.
The current World Cup and Four Nations Cup holders, Australia is the Goliath of international Rugby League. The Kangaroos have only lost 10 games from their past 74 matches.
Coached by the enigmatic Tim Sheens, the Roos are currently sitting on a 16 match winning streak, and were undoubted favourites just a few months ago. Now consider the following players, who through injury, surgery from injury, or ditching the code to pursue an NFL deal, are unavailable:
Billy Slater, Brett Morris, Josh Morris, Justin Hodges, Darius Boyd, Jarryd Hayne, Johnathan Thurston, Nate Myles, Jake Friend, Matt Scott, Luke Lewis, Anthony Watmough, Paul Gallen, James Tamou, Andrew Fifita, Trent Merrin, Matt Gillett.
A team with these players would be too much for any opposition to defeat. Too easy, mate.
But the above is a list of Australian representative players who are currently unavailable, either receiving surgery after carrying injuries throughout the NRL season, healing from injuries sustained during the NRL season, or ditching the code altogether to pursue an NFL dream.
Only six players from the ANZAC Test match against the New Zealand Kiwis earlier this year remain to meet them again tomorrow night: Captain Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Daly Cherry-Evans, Greg Inglis, Greg Bird, and Corey Parker.
These players in any team would make it formidable, together having played 116 International Test matches, collectively scoring 268 points. Forgetting the rest, the least we can expect is Bird and Parker digging in like a pair of work horses, Cronk, Smith and Inglis applying some Melbourne Storm plays, and Cherry-Evans to have a least one ‘Hail Mary’ charge at the line on the last tackle, probably coming up with a try.
It is the rest of the team that has caused much consternation in online discussions. Sheens debuting five rookies, two of which have only tasted representative level in the City vs. County match, has been met with some criticism.
Will Aaron Woods be able to match the Kiwi forward pack? The West Tigers Front rower has had a decent 2014 NRL season, averaging 31 tackles, 12 hit ups and 130 meters ran over 21 games. Woods was also instrumental in the gritty New South Wales win over Queensland in the State of Origin this year. Compare this with New Zealand’s Jesse Bromwich, who averaged 29 tackles, 13 hit ups and 145 meters ran over 23 games playing with the Melbourne Storm.
Not much between them stat-wise, but as the great Immortal Wally Lewis once said, quoting Professor Aaron Levenstein: “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” Take England’s George Burgess for example. Statistically he was below Woods and Bromwich, but won the South Sydney Rabbitohs a Premiership a few weeks ago, and how can you quantify a barnstorming Gorgeous George charge to set up his teammates?
After winning an NRL Premiership with the Sydney Roosters in last year, Aidan Guerra also represented Italy in their 2013 World Cup campaign, before switching his allegiance to Australia this year in order to play for Queensland in the State of Origin. Guerra handled these tests well, scoring 2 tries for Italy and 1 for Queensland. Fierce, tenacious, and always looking for gaps between a tiring forward pack, Guerra will be dangerous for the Kangaroos.
With all the standard Australia wingers unavailable, Sheens has found two more than worthy replacements in Josh Mansour from the Penrith Panthers, and Daniel Tupou from the Sydney Roosters.
Both have played on the international stage, Tupou for Tonga at the 2013 World cup, while Mansour represented Lebanon in the 2009 European Cup. Both are dominant wingers, scoring over a dozen tries this year for their clubs, and providing their own unique skills. For Tupou, it is his 195cm height and massive reach. For Mansour, its brute strength.
South Sydney’s Dylan Walker showed explosive form towards the end of the NRL season, ending up among the top players for Line breaks, Line break assists, and Try assists. Versatile as a centre, winger or in the halves, Walker is another handy replacement in this dubbed ‘2nd tier team’.
Along with the rookies, returning to the green and gold is lightning quick centre Michael Jennings from the Roosters, Brisbane Broncos Sam Thaiday joining Woods in the Front row, to some raised eyebrows from keen League supporters, since Thaiday is a Second rower.
Newcastle Knights’ Beau Scott and Auckland bound Ryan Hoffman make up the Second row, both powerful, reliable, and above all else, experienced at this level.
Finally the bench. Selecting West Tigers Hooker Robbie Farah there is a strange notion, considering Cameron Smith almost always plays 80 minutes. Farah had recently been asked by Tigers coach Mick Potter to consider sitting out these Four Nations series, in order to properly prepare for the 2015 NRL season, but he opted to take up a bench spot. Let us hope Tim Sheens doesn’t find himself in more trouble because of Robbie Farah.
Having missed the Trans-Tasman Test due to wretched form, and even being dropped for a few weeks by Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart, come October Josh Papalli has found himself a spot on the squad.
“There’s a lot of great players there who deserve this spot I have. But obviously Sheensy stuck with me and hopefully I can do the job for the boys and hopefully our team,” the 22-year-old wrecking ball said recently an interview with NRL.com.
Chances of winning
The Kangaroos are overwhelming favourites to beat the Kiwis tomorrow night, as well as winning the whole competition. A wealth of experience and talent across the paddock should see them delivering the expected result, though these things are not set in stone.
Every player will need to be switched on for the duration of the comp, as complacency has always been their greatest obstacle. Everyone remembers the 2008 World Cup, where after a 30 – 6 drubbing over the Kiwis early before being ambushed in the final, going down 34 – 20 at Eden Park.
Then there was the 2010 Four Nations, another humbling from the boys across the Tasman. You might think this Cup is in the bag, but then again, you probably thought those times as well.
Australian Kangaroos. Coach: Tim Sheens
1.Greg Inglis (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
2.Josh Mansour (Penrith Panthers)
3.Michael Jennings (Sydney Roosters)
4.Dylan Walker (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
5.Daniel Tupou (Sydney Roosters)
6. Daly Cherry-Evans (Manly Sea-Eagles)
7.Cooper Cronk (Melbourne Storm)
8.Aaron Woods (West Tigers)
9.Cameron Smith (Melbourne Storm)
10.Sam Thaiday (Brisbane Broncos)
11.Beau Scott (Newcastle Knights)
12.Ryan Hoffman (New Zealand Warriors)
13.Greg Bird (Gold Coast Titans)
14.Robbie Farah (West Tigers)
15.Aidan Guerra (Sydney Roosters)
16.Josh Papalii (Canberra Raiders)
17.Corey Parker (Brisbane Broncos)
As just mentioned, Stephen Kearney’s New Zealand Kiwis are to be taken lightly at one’s own peril. Dealing with several injuries own their own, and Sonny-Bill Williams departing to Rugby Union, New Zealand has also had to restructure heading into Saturday night.
Having helped take North Queensland Cowboys into the finals this year, Jason Taumalolo will put on the black jersey for the first time for his country tomorrow night. Averaging 126 meters, 20 tackles and 10 hit ups, Taumalolo will be looking to impress upon debut.
The halves pairing of the Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran will be dangerous from anywhere. Johnson is elusive and unpredictable, while Foran is extremely efficient at guiding a team around the paddock. Both also have superb kicking games which will threaten the opposition.
Filling in at Hooker for the suspended Isaac Luke, Thomas Leuleui will be flat-out to unsettle the Roos in the ruck, as Luke is prone to do. The young Kiwi backline was set to feature another newcomer in Dallin Watene Zelezniak, though injury forced Kearney to shuffle in utility back Gerald Beale instead.
While Beale is experienced in the Kiwi jersey with six Tests under his belt, his reputation is as a stalwart, not game changer. Dean Whare and Shaun Kenny-Dowall in the centres provides some attacking spark, and Jason Nightingale is one of the best finishers in the game.
Pita Hiku continues to hold the fullback position over Josh Hoffman, due to his impressive season with the Manly Sea Eagles this year. As a protégé for Brett Stewart at Manly, Hiku has developed into a stunning talent and will be a key asset for New Zealand.
Up front are former Melbourne Storm teammates Kenny Bromwich and Adam Blair. Bromwich is ranked among the top for offloads, and Blair is a Kiwi veteran with 25 tests. New Zealand Warriors and Kiwis Captain Simon Mannering makes up the Second row along with Kevin Proctor from the Storm, who are both more than capable of digging in and bashing their opposing number.
The New Zealand bench of Lewis Brown, Greg Eastwood, Martin Tapau and Tohu Harris will allow Kearney a steady rotation of powerful impact players to come tearing onto the field, which is one of the external reasons Australia should be worried, considering their bench.
Chances of winning
Every time the Kiwis line up and perform and the Haka dance before a match, in the eyes of the players tells of an appreciation of the honour for representing the New Zealand culture, the people, and the Nation. Besides Saturdays Test, New Zealand will play every game on home soil, including the final, should they get that far. While the bookies may spin a different yarn, on the field, in the moment, it is a matter of belief. It was this belief that has shaken the Australians many times before, and will be on the cards to happen again.
New Zealand Kiwis. Coach: Stephen Kearney
1.Peta Hiku (Manly Sea Eagles)
2.Jason Nightingale (St. George Illawarra-Dragons)
3.Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Sydney Roosters)
4.Dean Whare (Penrith Panthers)
5.Gerard Beale (St. George Illawarra-Dragons)
6.Kieran Foran (Manly Sea-Eagles)
7.Shaun Johnson (New Zealand Warriors)
8.Jesse Bromwich (Melbourne Storm)
9.Thomas Leuluai (New Zealand Warriors)
10.Adam Blair (West Tigers)
11.Simon Mannering (New Zealand Warriors)
12.Kevin Proctor (Melbourne Storm)
13.Jason Taumalolo (North Queensland Cowboys)
14.Lewis Brown (Penrith Panthers)
15.Greg Eastwood (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
16.Martin Taupau (West Tigers)
17.Tohu Harris (Melbourne Storm)
Once fighting under the banner of Great Britain with Scottish and Welsh players included, the Brits have had their fair share of glory over the past 100 years, winning 15 of 34 Ashes Series against Australia, before the Great Britain team was split into England, Scotland and Wales. Since then, England has strived for another taste, but tended to lack the components that matched Australia and New Zealand.
This time around, things look improved in some areas, and much of the same in others. England’s coach Steve McNamara has withdrawn Captain Sean O’Loughlin from playing the opening match again Samoa, much to the dismay of loyal English fans, so the leadership role is being filled by ‘2014 NRL Forward of the Year’ James Graham.
Graham’s contribution to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs this year was sensational, and was touted by Rugby League pundits as the single threatening force against South Sydney in the Grand Final.
Alongside him in the Front row is George Burgess, his opponent on that day and brother to Sam Burgess who had his cheek bone crunched by Graham’s head on the opening tackle. Expect a game of one hit-upmanship between these two.
Joe Westerman from Hull F.C is one of five players selected in their first game for Queen and Country, replacing O’Loughlin at Lock. The 24-year-old carries impressive stats into the international scene, with a top 20 place for meters ran and tackle busts in this season’s Super League. Westerman will be hungry for taking hit ups as well, being the overall third highest carrier of the ball.
Some flak has been levelled McNamara’s Second row selection of the Wigan Warrior’s pair Liam Farrell and Joel Tomkins, who are chided as ‘too small’ to match it with the big boppers in Samoa, but as the old PETA-friendly adage goes, ‘It’s not dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog that counts.”
Canberra Raiders bound Hooker Josh Hodgson has played two games in 2012 for the England Knights, scoring a try against Ireland on debut. Hodgons’ first game for the Lions is set to showcase just why Ricky Stuart and the Raiders were keen to cough up a six figures for his skillset.
England’s outer backline is mostly unchanged, with the potent wingers Josh Charnley and Ryan Hall looking to replicate their top try scoring prowess demonstrated during the Super League season for their respective clubs, Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos.
Kallum Watkins and Michael Shenton in the centres are highly dominant in Super League, though in what invariably shapes up into an NRL-Super League comparison, the focus will be on them to match their centre counterparts in the other nations.
The pairing of Gareth Widdop and Matthew Smith in the halves is an inspiring selection, Smith being ranked third for try assists for Wigan Warriors, Widdop establishing his mature, visionary style this year after departing the Storm for St. George Illawara-Dragons.
Fullback Sam Tomkins reunites with his English brethren after a tumultuous year with the New Zealand Warriors. With movements that has been likened to a baby giraffe learning to walk, Tomkins is nonetheless an exceptional talent, whose ball playing and running skills will be utilized by the English halves.
The Lions are also sporting a serious bench. 2014 Man of Steel award winner Daryl Clark got the nod from McNamara, coming off the bench as a utility. Tom Burgess, Ryan Hill and Brett Ferres round out the squad.
Chances of winning
About as good as England’s chances looked during World War 2 before the Americans joined and Hitler started goose stepping into Russia, which is to say slim. Seriously though, you know they ended up winning that war?
O.K the circumstances were slightly different, but if you went back in time and found some Londoner cowering in a bomb shelter as the Nazis unleashed another Blitzkrieg, they would have more faith in England ending up victorious than the current Rugby League English fans have in their team doing so.
So as Winston Churchill once proclaimed, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”
1.Sam Tomkins (New Zealand Warriors)
2.Josh Charnley (Wigan Warriors)
3.Kallum Watkins (Leeds Rhinos)
4.Michael Shenton (Castleford Tigers)
5.Ryan Hall (Leeds Rhinos)
6.Gareth Widdop (St George Illawarra Dragons)
7.Matty Smith (Wigan Warriors, Blackbrook)
8.George Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs,)
9.Josh Hodgson (Hull KR,)
10.James Graham (captain) (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
11.Liam Farrell (Wigan Warriors)
12.Joel Tomkins (Wigan Warriors)
13.Joe Westerman (Hull FC)
14.Daryl Clark (Castleford Tigers)
15.Brett Ferres (Huddersfield Giants)
16.Tom Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
17.Chris Hill (Warrington Wolves)
Samoa qualified for the Four Nations by defeating fierce rivals Fiji 32-16 in the Pacific Test in May. Following in the footsteps of France, Papua New Guinea and Wales, it is now Toa Samoa’s turn to challenge for the Four Nations Cup. As has come to represent the theme of International Rugby League, each team is playing for more than the final result.
They are playing to establish credibility for their nation on the global stage. Samoa amazed spectators by staging a fantastic fight back against New Zealand in their first match of the 2013 World Cup, before and wins over PNG and France before losing to Fiji in the quarter finals 22-4. They garnered many fans during that campaign who respected their passionate performances, and now have the opportunity to go up against the top three ranked national teams.
In what was cruising along as an issue-free lead up to the Four Nations for Samoan coach Matt Parish suddenly came to a halt when a number of players selected were involved in an incident outside a Brisbane nightclub in which police were reportedly involved. As such Parish omitted Tautau Moga, Reni Maitua and Sauaso Sue from the squad.
Samoa is spruiking quick an agile backline. Tim Simona, Antonio Winterstein and Joseph Leutele all speedsters. Daniel Vidot and Joseph Leilua are built like forwards, and will be taking to England’s centres with hammer and tongs.
Kyle Stanley and Ben Roberts are both capable of jaw dropping moments of brilliance, but like lightening in a bottle, it is a rare sight, and quite difficult to replicate. The remainder of the time Kyle Stanley is injured and Ben Roberts is Ben Roberts.
The youngster Michael Sio will play his fifth Test for Toa Samoa as Hooker, surrounded by a giant forward pack who are shaky at times in defence, but are as fearsome in their element as any of the other 3 teams. In fact due to the eligibility rules, players like Frank Pritchard are able to play for New Zealand, but was injured for the majority of this year and was not included.
Chances of winning
One would have to conclude Samoa’s chances of coming away from the Four Nations as Champions are around as likely as Ray Warren managing to commentate a game without blatantly stuffing up the players’ names. I for one will be playing the ‘Rabsisms Drinking Game’. No I won’t, but you should.
Seriously though, watch the Four Nations. It’s not like you’ve got something better to do. We all know you don’t.
TOA SAMOA Coach: Matt Parish
1.Tim Simona (West Tigers)
2.Antonio Winterstein (North Queensland Cowboys)
3.Ricky Leutele (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks)
4.Joseph Leilua (Newcastle Knights)
5.Daniel Vidot (Brisbane Broncos)
6.Ben Roberts (Melbourne Storm)
7.Kyle Stanley (St. George Illawarra-Dragons)
8.Sam Tagataese (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks)
9.Michael Sio (New Zealand Warriors)
10.David Fa’alogo (Newcastle Knights
11.Frank Pritchard (Canturbery-Bankstown Bulldogs)
12.Leeson Ah Mau (Parramatta Eels)
13.Josh McGuire (Brisbane Bronos)
14.Pita Godinet (Wakefield Trinity Wildcats)
15.Jesse Sene-Lefao (Manly Sea Eagles)
16.Isaac Liu (Sydney Roosters)
17.Mose Masoe (St Helens)
England vs. Samoa 5:00pm (Live on NINE)
Australia vs. New Zealand 7:30pm (Live NINE)