The Four Nations Rugby League final will be played at Anfield this weekend, as the Kiwis and Kangaroos do battle on a foreign field, for league supremacy.
The New Zealand team (Kiwis) are only just holding onto their number one world ranking, with two wins and a narrow drawn match with Scotland. A shock result, it could either motivate the side to ‘blast’ the Australian side (Kangaroos). Or, it may have shown the frailty that exists beneath the surface.
Australia have looked superior to date–four clean wins. Not always easy, but with no issues to dissuade commentators to not put the Kangaroos in as clear favourites. Add to that the two earlier wins over New Zealand…and you get the picture. It is theirs to lose really–with no disrespect to the Kiwis.
Australia clear favourites
This four nations rugby league final match has come down to the two southern hemisphere nations. The power-center of the rugby league world, no questions. The nation with the strongest, most popular domestic competition, it holds plenty of sway. The majority of both New Zealand and the England side all compete in the National Rugby League (NRL). It is where a lot of the best players congregate.
That did not always transfer onto the Four Nations stage. Australia always had that ability to rise to the occasion–they still do, but at times now the variables have gone the oppositions way. Invariably, that opposition has New Zealand who have claimed major titles, including the Rugby League World Cup.
For that reason, the two sides are perfectly suited to compete in the Grand Final.
New Zealand must stand up in Final
The David Kidwell coached side have been fortunate to advance to this stage. While harsh, very few will argue that the Kiwi team are underachieving in this tournament (since the first victory over England). After that opening game, they have been less than impressive.
By last weeks match against Scotland, the Jesse Bromwich led side had issues from the forward pack, to the halves. It stunted their offense and hindered most of the attack. A side out-of-sync, and by Sunday, that indecisive play must be reversed. Reports say that the Kiwis may have been ‘foxing’ but no team can disguise the issues on show last week.
In terms of players, the Kiwis may have the tougher forward pack though. Ex-Warriors coach Matthew Elliot said if that factor can be harnessed, the Kiwis could “boss around” the Kangaroos. Sam Thaiday has withdrawn with a broken cheekbone, so his loss will by felt, as will Thomas Leuluai’s broken jaw.
Both nations have game breakers
If you ran a finger down each team sheet, the stars appear frequently. State of Origin winners, Telstra Premiership holders and World Cup winners–spread across the field now more than ever.
Top of the list would be Jason Taumalolo. Daly M Medalist, a hard-boned running forward who is being used much more wisely by Kidwell (than in the earlier tests). Add to that, enforcer Manu Ma’u, Tohu Harris and Isaac Luke. They each can all stare equally at Matthew Scott, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis and Darius Boyd.
The two most influential players on the field will be no doubt, Johnathon Thurston and Shaun Johnson. The playmakers can change a match in an instant, but are yet to write their names on this tournament. The five-eighth and halfback respectively, will each hold keys to the match outcome–but cannot be the main focus alone.
In the big games, it is a player like James Maloney for Australia, or Jason Nightingale for the Kiwis whom might create some magic spark. The quality runs across the park for both sides, it is just harnessing that potential which will see one team hold aloft the Cup on Sunday.
Four Nations Rugby League Final
Sunday November 19. Anfield, Liverpool
At the end of the storm, there's a golden sky 🏆 pic.twitter.com/d9FB0LZlZ3
In a stadium, normally filled with English Premier League fans, the scene will be very different. The round ball replaced by the oval, the common ‘Red shirts’ are now dressed in Black and White, or Green and Gold. The combatants may feel like visitors, but the reception should be a special moment in the sport of Rugby League.
Matches are normally played on Wembley Stadium, down in London but the northern region of the United Kingdom is a stronghold of the game in Britain, so planners should be congratulated for this step. The Four Nations is a grand stage to promote the game to the sporting public. And what a stage Anfield Stadium will be.
Anfield pitch dimensions not suited to Rugby League
English rugby league fields are notorious for their small in-goals and edge of the field. In the NRL, a minimum 100 meter pitch is mandatory, with most having a 10 meter in-goal. Both teams in the final will be more used to those proportions.
Anfield on the other hand is a Football field. The pitch will be nine meters shorter than the required 100-meter length. To allay safety concerns due to a narrow in-goal, the Anfield pitch will now have a shortened five meter in-goal area. There will also be a further three-meter gap between the dead ball line and the perimeter fence.
These measures are in part to restrict the risk of injury for players attempting a try–even though it seems to be an ill-fitting facility, it will still be a worthy host. The Liverpool audience should be a mix of both league, football and general sports fans.
Grand Final attracts a Full House
English Super League fans have snapped up tickets for the entire tournament, and many expect the 45,000 capacity to be close to being full by Sunday. There is plenty of local interest; even if the Lions could not reach this years final. Add in ex-pat fans and the traveling army’s of Kiwis and Kangaroos fans, then the scene will be well set.
As the reigning Four Nations champions, New Zealand must take in a degree of self belief–if not, then it might be a title lost. A title the Kiwis claimed twice, to add to the initial victory in the 2005 Tri Nations tournament [as it was named then]. That set about a period of dominance by the New Zealand side. But Sunday could see that run come to a sudden halt.
Australian skipper Cameron Smith (see above) must be hoping that his group can finally turn that form around. It is during his tenure that the tide has swung to the other side of the Tasman. After tasting defeat on more than one occasion, even recent victories can be eroded if they fail to grab the title Sunday.
The scene will be set by Sunday. Each side knows the other well. Very well, and occasions like this come down to who can survive the colossal battle and produce those match-winning moments. And that is what the fans will want – the very best show possible.
AUSTRALIA v NEW ZEALAND
“Main photo credit”