PREVIEW: Four Nations Final
Australia and New Zealand will square off in the Four Nations final at Anfield on Sunday (Monday 1:30am AEDT) as the Kangaroos look to maintain their perfect international record in 2016, whilst the Kiwis seek to salvage their inconsistent campaign on English soil.
Mal Meninga’s side will head into the encounter as firm favourites after reaching the final in emphatic fashion, claiming victory in all preceding matches, including a 14-8 victory over their Trans-Tasman rivals in the second round of the tournament.
On the other side of the spectrum, New Zealand will be looking to rekindle the form that saw them claim a hard fought 17-16 win over the hosts in their opening fixture.
Despite receiving strong backing from the punters, Australian skipper, Cam Smith has refused to buy into hype surrounding his team, instead calling on past results to highlight the insignificance of the favourite’s label.
"I recall that was the same outlook from media and public in 2008 in the World Cup in Australia, the same outlook by the media and public in 2010 at the Four Nations," Smith said.
"I played in both of those matches where everyone thought it was just Australia who were going to run up and win, and we didn't.
"So we are not under any illusions about who we are facing this week and what they are capable of doing.
"They are ranked No.1 in the world at the moment and coming off their match on the weekend I think they will be particularly desperate to show everyone what they are capable of doing."
If the Kiwis are to continue their history of upsetting the Kangaroos on big occasions, the side will have to make significant improvements.
Having claimed one victory from their three games in the tournament – losing 14-8 to Australia and drawing 18-18 against a gutsy Scottish outfit – the top ranked side has looked out of sorts.
The task at hand will be made more difficult as New Zealand will also have to overcome their poor record on English soil.
In addition to their recent underwhelming showings, the Kiwis struggled on their 2015 tour of Great Britain which saw the hosts claim a 2-1 series victory over the visitors.
Unlike their opponents, Australia possess a dominant record in the same region with the Kangaroos claiming two Four Nations titles and three World Cups in the Motherland.
Although the odds are against them, New Zealand will head into the clash with a full strength side, whilst Australia are likely to only name one change from their 36-16 victory over England.
Mal Meninga is adamant that he will be sticking by the same side that proved too strong for the host nation, with only Sam Thaiday missing out on selection due to a fractured cheek and eye socket.
"Yeah definitely [that is the team for the final], internally we have made no secret of that as well," the Kangaroos mentor said.
"Aside from Sam [Thaiday] everyone is fit and healthy and got through the game.
"Sam had to go to hospital, we believe he has a fractured eye socket, which unfortunately will probably put him out for the game.”
Either Shannon Boyd or Jake Trbojevic will come onto the interchange bench in the place of the injured Broncos veteran.
Spotlight: The Halfbacks
As is so often the case when the Kangaroos take on the Kiwis, the importance of the halfbacks from either side cannot be overstated when looking at this clash.
Despite possessing vastly contrasting styles of play, both Cooper Cronk and Shaun Johnson are widely considered to be two of the finest playmakers in the game.
Johnson’s freakish natural ability arguably makes him the most dangerous and exciting player in the game, whilst Cronk’s precision in attack and game management is second to none.
Both Johnson and Cronk have been instrumental for their sides at times during the tournament, with the duo claiming man of the match honours in their final matches, signaling a strong run of form heading into the final.
Don’t be surprised if the result comes down to a moment of brilliance from either one of these players when the game is in the balance.