Kiwis play up role of underdogs in quest for 'biggest upset'

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The Independent Online

New Zealand hope that more than 25,000 British fans will get behind them as they try to wrest world supremacy from Australia this evening. The vast majority who have bought tickets for the Tri-Nations final at Elland Road would much rather that Great Britain were there.

Failing that, the Kiwis are happy to play the role of universal underdogs, trying to defy the odds on behalf of the rest of the rugby league world.

Their chances of doing so hang on some rather tenuous threads. Their scrum-half and key player, Stacey Jones, arrived back in camp only yesterday after the small matter of a trip back to Auckland for the birth of his son.

Playing him today under those circumstances seems a desperate ploy, but, as their coach, Brian McClennan, points out, the Kiwis do not have another fit scrum-half who is a full-time professional. That is the sort of fact that helps him build up their no-hoper status to the desired proportions.

"It would be the biggest upset in the history of rugby league," McClennan said, with some hyperbole, considering that his side beat Australia in Sydney two months ago. "It doesn't matter what you did in the rounds. The fact that they have had 30 to 40 years of total domination in rugby league is what counts. Great Britain went really well against Australia last year, but look what happened to them in the final."

McClennan has fine-tuned his side. It was inevitable that he would recall Nigel Vagana after suspension as Jones' half-back partner, but more surprising that he should drop the experienced Awen Guttenbeil from loose forward. That is likely to mean that the versatile Louis Anderson will start, with either Bronson Harrison or Wigan's new recruit Iafeta Palea'aesina on the bench.

Jones will be winning his 40th cap and his captain, Ruben Wiki, will become the first player in the world to win 50. These are underdogs with pedigree.

Australia's coach, Wayne Bennett, chuckles at the Kiwis' attempts to talk down their chances but he has other matters to occupy him, like whether Craig Wing and Craig Gower are fully fit and should he bring in Steve Price as an extra prop? For Great Britain, there is merely the role of interested observers. "I have to fancy Australia, because of their defence," said the British coach, Brian Noble.

AUSTRALIA (probable): Minichiello (Sydney); King (Melbourne), Gasnier (St George-Illawarra), Cooper (St George-Illawarra), Tate (Brisbane); Barrett (St George-Illawarra), Gower (Penrith); Civoniceva (Brisbane), Buderus (Newcastle, capt), Ryles (St George-Illawarra), O'Donnell (N Queensland), Fitzgibbon (Sydney), Kennedy (Manly). Substitutes: Wing (Sydney), O'Meley (Canterbury), Mason (Canterbury), Price (Warriors).

NEW ZEALAND (probable): Webb (Warriors); Webster (Melbourne), Hape (Bradford), Toopi (Warriors), Vatuvei (Warriors); Vagana (Cronulla), Jones (Warriors); Rauhihi (N.Queensland), Tony (Castleford), Wiki (Warriors, capt), Solomona (Wakefield), Kidwell (Melbourne), Anderson (Warriors). Substitutes: Faiumu (N.Queensland), Asotasi (Canterbury), Lauitiiti (Leeds), Palea'aesina (Warriors).

Referee: S Ganson (GB).