Both sides head into this one-off test in unfamiliar surroundings, on the back of contrasting fortunes. Whilst Australia is the undisputed holder of the number one ranking, having secured the World Cup on home soil last year, the number two and three rankings are much less clear cut between the other two traditional rugby league powerhouses.
England are currently ranked in 3rd place according the world rankings, and have perennially underachieved, having never won the World Cup as England (they have won the World Cup as part of Great Britain). However, with the aid of super-coach Wayne Bennett in the hot seat, the Wall of White appear to be more deserving of a higher ranking, having turned in some rather strong performances in last year’s World Cup tournament.
New Zealand are currently ranked behind Australia and ahead of England in second place. At their best, they have been able to trouble the powerful Australians, and were able to upstage them in the 2008 World Cup final, to claim their maiden title. Thus, the Kiwis have even held the number one ranking on occasion. However, unlike the Australians and the English, New Zealand had a totally deplorable World Cup tournament last season, as they not only failed to top their group, but they were unable to advance beyond the quarterfinals, which is rather disappointing for a team of such stature.
This match will be played on neutral ground, given it is held in the United States of America. Despite the fact that rugby league is not a major sport in the USA, American sports fans have been intrigued by the big hits involved in our game, as well as the absence of body protection. This is a nice way of globally expanding the game, especially in North America, given the 2021 World Cup will be held there. Moreover, whilst the English have Wayne Bennett at the helm, New Zealand has former Rabbitohs coach Michael McGuire in the hot seat, having taken over from David Kidwell over the summer. Both coaches know what it takes to be successful.
2016 – Four Nations – New Zealand 17 def. England 16 at Kirklees Stadium, Huddersfield.
2015 – Test Match – England 20 def. New Zealand 14 at DW Stadium, Wigan.
2015 – Test Match – New Zealand 9 def. England 2 at London Stadium.
2015 – Test Match – England 26 def. New Zealand 12 at KCOM Stadium, Hull.
2014 – Four Nations – New Zealand 16 def. England 14 at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin.
Despite New Zealand getting the better of England in three of their five most recent encounters, their matches have been nothing short of tight and thrilling. In fact, their most recent World Cup encounter came in the 2013 tournament, where England were minutes away from advancing to the final on home soil. Unfortunately, some individual brilliance by Kiwis halfback, Shaun Johnson, prevented that from happening, thereby consigning them to a heartbreaking 20-18 defeat at the iconic Wembley Stadium.
The last time there was a blowout scoreline between the two sides came in 2011, when England thrashed New Zealand, to the tune of 28-6 at home. However, given the recent heartbreak experienced by the English at the hands of the Kiwis, there is ample motivation for them to win this match. Of the 40 matches between the two, 24 went the way of England, while New Zealand won 15 of these matches, whereas a lone draw occurred in their encounter in 1975. As for England competing as part of a unified Great Britain team, they have played against New Zealand on 83 occasions, winning 46 of these encounters, while 32 victories went the way of the Kiwis, followed by 5 drawn matches in 1965, 1980, 1985, 1998 and 2002.
John Bateman, Sam Burgess, Tom Burgess, Jake Connor, James Graham, Ryan Hall, Chris Hill, Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, Jermaine McGillvary, Sean Loughlin, Mark Percival, Stefan Ratchford, James Roby, Scott Taylor, Luke Thompson, Gareth Widdop, George Williams, Elliott Whitehead
Leeson Ah Mau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Herma Ese’ese, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, James Fisher-Harris, Slade Griffin, Peta Hiku, Jamayne Isaako, Jordan Kahu, Isaac Liu, Issac Luke, Te Maire Martin, Esan Marsters, Ken Maumalo, Kodi Nikorima, Joseph Tapine, Martin Taupau, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
The facts that matter
The English have gone from strength to strength with Bennett at the helm. After being accounted for by arch-rivals Australia in the opening match of the 2017 World Cup, they would quickly bounce back from that loss to progress to the final, taking care of surprise packets Lebanon, France, an electric Papua New Guinea, and a rampant Tonga in the semifinals. In some ways, they were somewhat fortunate to account for the Tongans, however their 20-0 lead eventually proved too much for the Tongans to overcome. Unfortunately, World Cup glory would prove to be elusive, as they were again unable to overcome the Aussies. Despite the heartbreaking loss, the way in which they prevented the Aussies from scoring many points against them would have pleased Bennett immensely. In fact, the maximum number of points which the Wall of White would concede was 18.
As well as being more rigid in defence, the English have some very powerful forwards such as James Graham and the Burgess brothers (Sam and Tom). If the forwards can make the required yardage, there is little doubt that Gareth Widdop will be free to pull the strings in attack. This will then allow attacking weapons, such as Jermaine McGillvary and Ryan Hall to score the tries needed to get over the line. Thus, if they carry their form from the World Cup into this match, they will be very difficult to beat.
Whilst their opponents had a decent World Cup campaign last year, the same could not be said of New Zealand. Despite the high profile defection to Tonga by Jason Taumalolo, as well as the absence of Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor, there was more than enough personnel in the Kiwi ranks to at least push for a spot in the final. After destroying Samoa and Scotland in the group stages, New Zealand were overpowered by a rampant Tonga outfit in the second half, to lose to their Pacific neighbours for the first time. This meant they were left to settle for second place in their group, and were pitted against a red hot Fiji, who they were still expected to account for, especially being at home. Instead, they were held try-less by a staunch Fiji outfit, and were eliminated in the quarterfinals, consigning them to their earliest World Cup exit since 1995. Subsequently, the board had opted to dispense of the coaching services of David Kidwell.
As a result, former Rabbitohs mentor Michael McGuire was brought in to restore some pride back in New Zealand rugby league. Given he won coached the Rabbitohs to a premiership in 2014 and a World Club Challenge title in 2015, there is minimal doubt that McGuire is capable of getting the results out of his team. As for the players, there have been some fresh faces brought into the lineup, which will give them some much-needed enthusiasm in this match. With this being the case, it will be up to the likes of Isaac Luke, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Kodi Nikorima and Te Maire Martin to lead the way. Much like their opponents, there is some grunt up front, especially with the likes of Waerea-Hargreaves and Martin Taupau, as well as some strike power in their backs.
This may be a one-off test being held in a foreign country for both sides, however there will be no shortage of emotion in this match.
England will be buoyed by their very impressive displays in the World Cup, having made the final and given the eventual world champions an absolute fright, before eventually going down. As such, they will be looking to pick up from where they left off.
For New Zealand, they will simply be looking to restore some pride in their jersey, having been completely embarrassed in last year’s World Cup tournament. There has been a much-needed overhaul, which included the coach. Thus, they will be sure to be rip in to their opponents and unload any suppressed frustrations.
Whilst there is minimal doubt that the fresh-faced Kiwis will unleash their fury on the English and give them a fair shake, the Wall of White just seem to have more discipline and experience in their ranks, as well as rigid defence, which even the best found to be near impenetrable. Thus, I’m tipping the English to hold firm for victory over a plucky Kiwis outfit. England by 4.
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