Preview: England v New Zealand
John Smith's Stadium
Sunday 12:30am AEDT
The Kiwis will begin their Four Nations title defence against host nation England in a match many people are already calling a virtual grand final qualifier.
With Australia widely tipped to win their pool matches, and Scotland expected to be the tournament's 'easy-beats', Sunday morning's matchup between the number one and three teams in the world is crucial to both sides' final aspirations.
England will head into this one on the back of a comfortable 40-6 win over France last weekend in Avignon in what shaped as Wayne Bennett's first match in charge. Star prop James Graham came off late with a head knock but is expected to be fit.
It was a different story for New Zealand who suffered a heavy 20-point defeat at the hands of the Kangaroos in Perth. It was a tough day at the office for the Kiwis as they struggled from the outset to apply pressure to a professional Australian unit. Their much vaunted forward pack will need to lift if they want to match it with England's equally-impressive big men.
Watch out England: Kiwis coach David Kidwell conceded his decision to leave wrecking-ball Jason Taumalolo on the bench against the Kangaroos until it was too late was an error in judgement, and you get the feeling it's one he is unlikely to repeat any time soon. The rookie mentor will need his behemoth lock to be at his Dally M-winning best this weekend against an English pack that can match their NZ counterparts in size and skills. If he produces the sort of form that propelled the Cowboys to within a week of back-to-back grand finals then the Kiwis will be virtually unstoppable.
Watch out New Zealand: The Kiwis struggled to contain the combination of Greg Inglis and Valentine Holmes in the recent trans-Tasman Test in Perth, and their job won't get any easier with the bulldozing Ryan Hall waiting for them in Huddersfield. The England winger took his tally to 28 tries from 28 matches with a double against the French at the weekend, and has bagged three tries in his past two Four Nations matches against the Kiwis.
Key match-up: Josh Hodgson v Issac Luke. It's unlikely that these two champion hookers will duke it out for the full 80 minutes, but no matter how long they are on the field, their output will be quality. Hodgson's 2016 season for the Raiders was a thing of beauty, establishing himself as a premier No.9 in the NRL. The Englishman finished the year with 16 try assists (club best), made 876 tackles and crossed for five tries, and was regarded by many as the best player in the NRL. Issac Luke's first year at the Warriors didn't reach the heights that he would have liked, and he will be keen to step up after being left out of the trans-Tasman Test back in April. The nippy No.9 scored three tries and set up eight more, but only managed 1,500 metres – his worst return in years. Both forwards packs will lay great platforms for their playmakers; it's up to these two men to make the most of it.
The history: Played 13; England 5, New Zealand 7, Drawn 1. England claimed a 2-1 series win last year when the sides met in the UK, but it's hard to gauge much from those matches given the players that were unavailable. With Shaun Johnson out injured, the Kiwis used Tui Lolohea, Kodi Nikorima and Peta Hiku in the halves, while the English were without Sam and George Burgess up front. New Zealand won each of the two previous encounters by two points.
What are the odds: All the early money with Sportsbet was for New Zealand, but as we get closer to kick off, the tide is turning and England have firmed slightly in the head to head market. 70 per cent of the money is for England at the line, where they’re receiving the points start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.
Match officials: Referee: Robert Hicks. Sideline officials: James Child and Anthony Elliott.
Televised: Nine Gem – Live coverage from 12:00am.
The way we see it: There is no doubting the Kiwis lift when it comes to tournament play as opposed to one-off Tests, but even that might not be enough to help them down Bennett's troops on foreign soil. There is a lot to like about this English team, and if they can match it up front with their Kiwi counterparts then they should leave Huddersfield with a narrow win. England by 6.
This article first appeared on NRL.com.