Underdogs will be no pushover for Noble's men

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The Independent Online

New Zealand have only lost to Great Britain once in their last 10 meetings, but their captain, Ruben Wiki, is comfortable with the role of underdogs at Huddersfield this evening.

Despite their draw against Australia three weeks ago, the Kiwis are third favourites to win the Tri-Nations tournament.

"It's always the way," said Wiki. "We're always the underdogs and we're always trying to rise to the occasion."

The Kiwis have the players to do that, although they will miss Lesley Vainikolo, even though his replacement, Shontayne Hape, was one of the form players of the Super League season and Ali Lauitiiti one of the most damaging forwards.

One factor that could switch the odds in the Kiwis' direction is the virus that has been rampant in the British camp this week.

The Great Britain manager, Phil Clarke, said yesterday that Iestyn Harris and Andy Farrell had recovered after both missing training earlier in the week.

The latest victim was Sean Long, but he, too, was on the mend by last night, leaving the kit manager, Stan Wall, as the last still to be suffering from the bug.

The lingering fear is that someone else will succumb on the day of the match, but Great Britain's coach, Brian Noble, can do little but concentrate on the factors that he can control.

As Long has revealed, there has been extra effort put into the kicking game this week - something that was badly needed after the woeful effort in that department last week.

Noble will make changes in his line-up, almost certainly bringing in a specialist stand-off and returning Paul Sculthorpe to his natural position of loose forward after a mixed performance in Manchester.

It would also be a surprise if Mickey Higham was not on the bench as a second hooker to give Great Britain an extra spark from dummy-half.

There is a surprising confidence that the side's best winger, Brian Carney, will come through safely, despite a series of hamstring problems in his last few matches.

This is not a game about which Noble could be as relaxed in defeat as he was against Australia last week.

"It's pretty close to win or bust," he said. "It puts us under a lot of pressure for the last two games if we don't win this one."

Illness aside, the British camp has been distinctly upbeat during this week's preparation. "I think that, in terms of winning the competition, that was the best possible result for us last week," said Clarke.

"If we had won, there could have been a problem getting the side back up again. If we'd lost by 20, they might have lacked the self-belief, but a narrow defeat, in a game they know they could have won, could be perfect."

It is attractive logic, but it will only apply if Great Britain win at the Galpharm Stadium tonight.

The other international tournament of the autumn reaches its conclusion at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington tomorrow, where Karl Harrison's England are strong favourites to beat Ireland in the final of the European Nations Cup.

The Irish have beaten Scotland and Wales to get this far, but their coach, Daryl Powell, admits that their blend of just three regular Super League players, part-timers and at least two from the Irish domestic competition, will have to step up to another level to compete.

One extra incentive for England is that Noble is set to add one of their side to his Tri-Nations squad next week. It is a weekend of opportunities.