League Freaks 2010 Four Nations Tournament Preview

Its a tournament that was conceived with the notion that regular test football between the top nations would see other teams life their game and come up to the same level we have seen Australia play at forever.

Has it worked?

New Zealand’s success in 2006 and the 2008 World Cup is look at as a result, but I tend to feel thats been more to do with the explosion of Kiwi talent in the NRL rather than the Four Nations.

France haven’t really got anything out of their foray into the tournament from what I have seen, however Papua New Guinea will be thankful for once again being allowed to play a better class of opponent.

As for England, are they any better than they were five years ago? Are they actually worse?

I love the Four Nations for the simple fact that I get to see Australia play a few different teams, and then a big final. We get a run for our money by the Kiwi’s, we get a game against an opponents we normally don’t play, and we get to smash England and usually, win a trophy.

With all that freshly embedded in your skull, lets look at the four teams taking part this year, their squads and how I think they will go:

They destroyed England in England during last years Four Nations Final and they managed to blood a few youngsters who this time around are going to be better for the run.

I like the direction Australia is going with their coaching and squad building. It feels like a slow build towards the 2013 World Cup, and thats something Australia haven’t really had to do in previous World Cups.

Darren Lockyer (C), Sam Thaiday (Brisbane Broncos); Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, David Shillington (Canberra Raiders); Paul Gallen (Cronulla Sharks); Greg Bird (Gold Coast Titans); Anthony Watmough (Manly Sea Eagles); Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith (Melbourne Storm); Kurt Gidley (Newcastle Knights); Matthew Scott, Willie Tonga (Nth Qld Cowboys); Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta Eels); Petero Civoniceva, Luke Lewis (Penrith Panthers); Darius Boyd, Brett Morris, Dean Young (St George Illawarra Dragons); Todd Carney, Nate Myles (Sydney Roosters); Brent Tate (New Zealand Warriors); Robbie Farah, Chris Lawrence (Wests Tigers).

Injuries have played their part in the makeup of the Australian back line, but I think this was an occurrence we had to have. We are going to see some players get a start who normally would not have got a chance because of established players, and sometimes that is a big positive.

Think back to Michael Jennings getting a run against France in last seasons Four Nations. Justin Hodges had a mortgage on that center spot, but Jennings got his chance and was unlucky not to play in the final.

As always with Australia, you have the whole package. Size, speed, skill and experience.

I’d take a Darren Lockyer/Cooper Cronk halfback pairing over any other in the world. Yes, even ahead of Lockyer/Thurston.

I think at Test level Cronks game is just what you want. He has a fantastic kicking game, he has that key combination with Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, he is great in defense and has an outstanding ability to know when its time to run the ball. He is the best halfback in the game.

As for Lockyer, I have a good feeling about the bloke. I think he might be able to do some things at this level!

A big of a generational change happening here, and while the English will be looking at this pack and feeling they are weakened, this is an outstanding set of in form forwards.

Shillington, Myles, Thaiday and Gallen have been unbelievable this year at club and state level. Civoniceva grinds out the yardage still and you have a few young players who I think will be better for this experience in Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Matthew Scott and Dean Young.

I think this is the best Australian forward pack we have seen in a few years and it will be the foundation of our Test side for years to come.

The injuries have been in focus for obvious reasons but to be honest, it looks like preparations for the Kangaroos have been very smooth so far.

I really see this as another step forward from the 2008 World Cup. A few proven performers, form players and a couple of youngsters getting a run to see how they go.

This squad looks outstanding. It would have been nice to have Greg Inglis in there and I would loved to have seen Jamal Idris being unleashed on the English backs, but I think his time will come, probably next year.

They are equal favorites with the Kiwi’s for me, with the final held at Suncorp Stadium and Darren Lockyer in the side. I like!

Having been humiliated last year in the Four Nations Final on home soil, England has over gone a few changes. A new coach in Steve McNamara and a new captain due to injury in Adrian Morley.

In the last 30 years, England tours of Australia have been messy. Thats my way of saying they have been disastrous, humiliating, epic failures.

Ryan Atkins (Warrington), Tom Briscoe (Hull), Kevin Brown (Huddersfield), Tony Clubb (Harlequins), Leroy Cudjoe (Huddersfield), Darrell Goulding (Wigan), Ryan Hall (Leeds), Luke Robinson (Huddersfield), Sam Tomkins (Wigan), Michael Shenton (Castleford), Gareth Widdop (Melbourne), Sam Burgess (South Sydney), Earl Crabtree (Huddersfield), Gareth Ellis (Wests Tigers), Stuart Fielden (Wigan), James Graham (St Helens), Darrell Griffin (Huddersfield), B Harrison (Warrington), Shaun Lunt (Huddersfield), Adrian Morley (Warrington, capt), Shaun O’Loughlin (Wigan), James Roby (St Helens), Joel Tomkins (Wigan), Ben Westwood (Warrington).

Inexperience in the back line isn’t the worst thing for England. Many of the supposed “reliable” players of recent years were tragic, comical failures, so its good to see change in that regard. I like Tom Briscoe, he reminds me a little of Jason Nightingale in that he just gets the job done despite not having the reputation of being a superstar.

I worry about their centers. Its the hardest position to play defensively and these young blokes have never had to play it on firmer grounds against an Australian side thats on its toes. Sure, last years Final was a big of a warning to what can happen, but they can expect that and more over a full 80 minutes in dry conditions..

Sam Tomkins will be relied on to do a whole lot for England as their number one play maker. He played alright in last years Four Nations, but he is still very young, inexperienced at this level, and on top of that, he plays most of his football at club level for Wigan at fullback!

Robinson isn’t bad for Huddersfield, but lets face it, England don’t have any other options in the halves. This is England in 2010, they have to make do with what they have got.

There has been a lot of talk about the English forwards, and I don’t like it. I’m looking at this pack and while Burgess is good, and Ellis is the widest running forward in history, I don’t see why there is so much talk about them to be honest.

Morely is a shadow of the player he once was, and nothing to worry about. Westwood is a trier, but thats about it. Graham fades in and out of contests and is nothing special. Roby is a serviceable hooker but he doesnt offer the full range of kicking options you want.

The fact that England have included Stuart Fielden, who has only held onto his place in the Wigan first team because they can’t afford to drop him, says it all for me. Of this pack, I’d say there are three decent players.

As always, England have started talking themselves up for no reason what so ever. There is just no honesty in the English game at all. On top of that you have a coach (Who was all but sacked by his club mid season) who was signed merely for the fact he is cheap, and a captain who is not known for being captain material at all and who will be off the field at the 20 minute mark.

Many of this England side have yet to do a Tour of Australia and New Zealand. The football is different. Grounds are harder, the weather will be warmer, you have your opponents who will be more settled and rested for not having the travel demands. This is a whole different beast to playing back in Northern England.

They will be poorly coached and under prepared.

I think this is going to be a “line in the sand” series for England. I think they are going to be so far off the pace, and so badly beaten that maybe, hopefully, a complete overhaul of the way things are done in Great Britain happens after this series.

I would not be surprised if they lost their warm up game against the New Zealand Maori. Against Papua New Guinea I think they will struggle to a win. The Kiwi’s usually play down to England level, but still win comfortably. Against Australia though, if they can lose by less then 40 they are going well, but if its dry conditions in Melbourne, we could see records broken.

They won’t make the final.

New Zealand
Four Nations Champions in 2006, World Cup Winners in 2008. A lot was expected of New Zealand during last years Four Nations and yet, they didn’t really turn up and put in the performance many expected.

They finally get a chance to play some football on home soil in 2010, and they have no excuses as far as preparation goes.

They have a great looking squad, games at home and they have three games to prepare for the final in Brisbane.

Adam Blair, Sika Manu (Melbourne Storm); Lewis Brown, Lance Hohaia, Simon Mannering, Ben Matulino, Manu Vatuvei (Vodafone Warriors); Greg Eastwood (Leeds Rhinos); Nathan Fien, Jason Nightingale, Jeremy Smith (St George Illawarra Dragons); Bronson Harrison (Canberra Raiders); Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Sam Perrett, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Sydney Roosters); Thomas Leuluai (Wigan Warriors); Issac Luke (South Sydney Rabbitohs); Benji Marshall – Captain (Wests Tigers); Sam McKendry and Frank Pritchard (Penrith Panthers); Junior Sa’u (Newcastle Knights); Antonio Winterstein (Brisbane Broncos).

Its a young set of backs, but very polished performers who actually have a decent amount of experience. Unlike in the past, you don’t have a bunch of players that can be world beaters one day, and egg beaters the next. These guys are all going to perform well in every game.

I like the inclusion of Winterstein, he will be a 2013 World Cup player for them. It will be interesting to see if they play Hohaia at fullback or off the bench as a utility, I get the feeling if he is at fullback they are going for the safer option, its a known quantity.

Its all Benji Marshall all the time for New Zealand in the halves.

Thomas Leuluai isn’t really a halfback, he is more a hooker with solid defense who can get away with playing in the halves in Super League because you don’t need to have any skill to be a halfback over there.

I’m guessing Nathan Fien will get a run in the halves with Marshall. Fien has done well for the Kiwi’s in the past playing in their halves so its a winning combination. Keeping in mind if Hohaia plays at fullback, he tends to get in and take pressure of the halves anyway.

The Kiwi’s forward pack is sensational. It has just the right mix of impact players, workers and utility players with a big of skill in them.

Blair always lifts when playing for his country and if Frank Pritchard is on, he can bust a game wide open. I’m happy to see that Lewis Brown got a call up, I think he can play a bit of a Greg Bird role in that he is a robust runner, a good defender and he has a bit of skill too that can put the defense in two minds.

They have a heap of depth and they should have a great forward rotation. I hope they resist the urge to just stack the bench with impact players, they need to be able to bring on tackling machines as well I feel.

The dropping of Roy Asotasi from all calculations has cause a few headlines, but he has been living on borrowed time for years at this level. Once he signed that big contract to move from the Bulldogs to South Sydney years ago, he has been terrible. I remember in the ill fated All Golds tour thinking “This bloke is so far off the pace its embarrassing”, and how many years ago was that now!

Equal favorites, without doubt. The only thing I worry about is the halves, if Benji Marshall isn’t on his game (As he wasn’t during last years Four Nations) then the Kiwi’s will lack that scoring punch out wide they really need against Australia.

If the Kiwi’s forwards can fire up, they can win it up the middle I think. Their focus will be to be ready for the final in Brisbane. They have the ability to win, but I think for New Zealand they also need to have that edge where they play with controlled aggression.

They will probably start a little slow but finish the tournament strong. They will be in the final.

Papua New Guinea
Considering their ability, its tragic we don’t see Papua New Guinea playing more regular games against Australia and New Zealand.

Macali Aizue (Halifax RLFC); Francis Ray, Mark Mexico, Johnson Kuike, Nixon Kolo (Masta Mak Rangers); Paul Aiton (Cronulla Sharks); Rod Griffin (Northern Pride); Menzie Yere (Sheffield Eagles); Rodney Pora, Dion Aiye, George Moni, Sigfred Gande, Larsen Marabe, Pidi Tongap (Agmark Rabaul Gurias); Richard Kambo (Newtown Jets); Ryan Tongia (Gold Coast Titans); Michael Mark, Charlie Wabo (Hunslet Hawks); Jessie Joe Parker, Elizah Riyong (Port Moresby Vipers); Benjamin John (Parkes Spacemen); Glen Nami, Tony Dai, Thompson Teteh (Goroka Bintangor Lahanis); Joseph Pombo (Canterbury Bulls); Desmond Mok (Ipswich Jets); Andrew Sam (SBSL Mendi Muruks); David Loko (Mioks); Joe Bond (Norths Devils); Jack Cooper (North Queensland Cowboys NYC); Alex Haija (QRL).

Line Up
If you know all about these Papua New Guinea players, you’re a dork and you need some help!

There are a few familiar faces in the side from the 2008 World Cup and a number of players who are in the lower grades in Australia.

I worry about the heavy reliance on players who ended up heading over to England after the 2008 World Cup. Its great that these players have managed to earn money playing the game over there, but the standard of football they are now use too is very low.

Adrian Lam stepped down as PNG coach with concerns over the way the side was run. Things got political apparently with selections, and he wanted no part of that. Stanely Gene, the 57 year old legend, was given the coaching role and it will be interesting to see how he goes.

Papua New Guinea will play tough football, full of passion. Their only problem against top sides like Australia and New Zealand is that they lack a big of size in the forwards (The general PNG population you find is generally short in stature….not that there is a problem with being short!) and because they are not playing at that higher level of NRL football, their fitness at the end of halves becomes a problem.

Aside from that however, PNG are a tough side to play against and always give you a run for your money. Their best chance to winning a game is against England. Had they been allowed to play that game on home soil (And why they haven’t is beyond me!) they would have won. They will have to play in New Zealand however, that will even things up a bit, but even still, don’t count them out!

The Draw
A bit of a strange draw with no games in Papua New Guinea, a double header that relegated a Test between PNG and England to pre-match entertainment, and the probable finalists meeting a week before the final. Still, here are the dates:

Oct 23rd – New Zealand vs England – Westpac Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand
Oct 24th – Australia vs Papua New Guinea – Parramatta Stadium, Parramatta, Australia
Oct 30thb- New Zealand vs Papua New Guinea – International Stadium, Rotorua, New Zealand
Oct 31st – Australia vs England – AAMI Park, Melbourne, Australia
Nov 6th – Papua New Guinea vs England – Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand
Nov 6th – New Zealand vs Australia – Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand
13th Nov – 2010 Four Nations Final – Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia

Its going to be interesting to see how this competition is received by the general public.

The 2008 Rugby League World Cup had some good attendances and really showed that there is a market for the international game if it is well run and played at venues that are well suited to the expected crowds.

Expect refereeing to once again be an issue. Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea will be happy with the NRL referee’s and unhappy with the Super League referee’s. England will whinge about the NRL referee’s and demand the use of their substandard referee’s in games they play in.

For the final, I just want to see the best referee available. That means, no one from England.

One thing I hope to see is the same atmosphere at games and the same following. With Rugby League tournaments held in Australia, you get better crowds and more involvement than you do in England because more of the communities are based over here. When its held in England, the only people turning up to watch non England games are a few thousand die hards who don’t care either way, that isn’t the case when these neutral games are held in England and New Zealand.

I have a feeling that if Papua New Guinea go well we might see changes to the international calender that will see them play more regular games and maybe even become a permanent fixture in the Four Nations.

I also think that after this tournament England will have some very tough questions to ask itself and some realities to face.

For Australia and New Zealand, they both see this as a one-one-one match up with a few warm up games to get them in form. They will both contest the final and to be honest, there is nothing between the two teams.

Both have selected sides that I think are at similar levels of preparation looking towards the 2013 World Cup. Australia is maybe slightly ahead in the players it is blooding and that have experienced a high level of intense football, but New Zealand have the luxury of cashing in one the influx of Polynesian talent coming into the National Rugby League.

So, who wins the final?

I think injuries will be a big factor. I worry about how much the Kiwi’s will need to rely on Benji Marshall, however I don’t think its any more of a reliance than Australia has with Darren Lockyer.

I like Australia’s depth, its hard to pick a player in their squad that is a step down from anyone else, and that coupled with home field advantage would just make me edge towards Australia winning the final.

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