England and New Zealand prepare for Four Nations decider
Friday 11 November 2011
Hull's KC Stadium will be no place for the faint-hearted tomorrow evening when England and New Zealand do battle for a place in the Gillette Four Nations final.
It is a winner-takes-all clash after the first two rounds left England level pegging with the Kiwis, with both having defeated Wales and lost to Australia, and remarkably they also have the same points difference.
However, New Zealand's superior points percentage means they need only a draw to go through to a meeting with the Kangaroos at Elland Road tomorrow week and all the pointers are for a closely-fought contest.
There has been just one draw in England's nine previous meetings with the Kiwis but in 2004 only two points separated Great Britain and New Zealand at the KC Stadium, with the hosts squeezing through to the Tri Nations final.
The Kiwis were also on the wrong end of a 20-12 scoreline in the corresponding match of the 2009 Four Nations at Huddersfield and Ryan Hall, who was an ever-present in that series, believes England can draw on the experience.
"In 2009 we did exactly what we needed to. Now we've got to do it again," the Leeds winger said.
"We've matured a bit in rugby terms since then and, having done that, it gives us a bit of experience."
England will be encouraged by their battling 36-20 defeat by Australia at Wembley, where they were distinctly out of luck, while New Zealand have quietly gone about their business so far, ominously ready to peak when it matters.
Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney knows the KC Stadium well, having had a season with Hull FC in 2005, but New Zealand have lost on both their previous matches there.
In addition to their 26-24 loss to Great Britain in 2004, they suffered a crushing 44-0 defeat there during their ill-fated 2007 Test series.
Jamie Peacock, Gareth Ellis and James Graham all featured in what was Britain's record win over the Kiwis on home soil and their fitness could be crucial to England's chances.
England will need at least two of their most experienced forwards to recover from injuries sustained against Australia but the loss of any one of them will be keenly felt.
Unusually, coach Steve McNamara has yet to announce his team, which is not a good sign, but he is confident over the outcome of tomorrow's match.
"We've improved each week throughout the tournament without doubt and I'm sure we'll see some more improvement this week to get us over the line," he said.
"There's a lot at stake. We need to play with a lot of passion and a lot of control at the same time.
"If we get that mix right, we will be a tough side beat but we're up against a Kiwi team that has been very successful in the last four years."
McNamara could yet field the same team for a fourth consecutive match but, whatever selection he makes, one player guaranteed a spot is Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield, who will be playing in his 40th match of 2011.
Sinfield, who was man of the match playing at hooker in that 20-12 win over the Kiwis in 2009, has been in exceptional form during the second half of the season, despite his remarkable workload.
"He looks after himself as good as anybody and that's probably why he can do what he's doing at this moment in time," McNamara said.
"His influence on this team, as I've said right from the start, is very, very big.
"He's played in three different positions throughout this tournament and his performance hasn't diminished in any of those positions. He's a very good professional."
Fewer than 3,000 tickets remain unsold, raising the prospect of a full house at the 25,000-capacity stadium.
"There has been a lot of awareness in the fixture since the competition began but it has taken on a new level during the past week and it will be fantastic to see the sides take to the pitch in front of a near-capacity crowd," RFL chief executive Nigel Wood said.
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