Rugby League: Kiwi high-flyers are set for victory roll: Great Britain players need to recover lost form to stand chance of success in first Test at Wembley

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The Independent Online
IF WE ignore, as we should, the evidence of two irrelevant midweek defeats, New Zealand go into today's first Test at Wembley in rather more convincing form than many of the players who will represent Great Britain.

Losses at Bradford and Castleford during the first two weeks of the tour mean nothing, because the involvement of Test players was negligible. It is one certainty of an unpredictable match that it is the Kiwis' victories over Wales and Wigan that have dominated British thinking this week.

Those matches showed the qualities that constitute such a threat this afternoon, particularly their hard-running, mobile forwards with their commendable ability to keep the ball alive.

It is undoubtedly a well-balanced pack, with the power and pace of Quentin Pongia and Stephen Kearney complementing the solid graft of Brent Stuart and Duane Mann. Add the varied ball skills of Tawera Nikau and John Lomax, who can both produce startlingly accurate passes out of the tackle, and the Kiwis look formidably well-equipped.

Gary Freeman, the tourists' captain and scrum-half, is not far from being the best in the world in his position. His ability to produce the telling run, pass or kick at vital moments was crucial to the New Zealand fightback at Wigan. Even his classic half-back personality trait of a fiery temper is something that generally works in his favour these days now that he is sufficiently in control to channel it constructively.

The other undoubted match-winners in the backs are Dave Watson, with his wiry strength and unpredictable running in broken play, and Sean Hoppe, whose combination of strength, speed and technical polish make him arguably the best wing in the world.

If there are doubts, they concern the ability of Gene Ngamu, the 19- year-old stand-off, to handle the occasion and of Kevin Iro to rise to the occasion after too often disappointing at club level. Any doubts the canny New Zealand coach, Howie Tamati, had about Ngamu's readiness were removed at Wigan. As for Iro, he has been picked on reputation as well as previous form at Wembley. But, as a quick perusal of the Great Britain team reveals, he is far from unique in that.

If Britain are to win, a disturbing number of players need to rediscover the sort of form that has eluded them too often this season. Garry Schofield, the captain, tackled that point head-on.

'I've not been too happy with my own personal form for Leeds, although playing scrum-half for three games didn't help,' he said. 'There are probably other players who haven't been at their best, but I'm confident that we will go out at Wembley and show what we can really do.'

The onus on the pack is particularly weighty. In the front row, Karl Harrison has not always run with his full power this season, Martin Dermott has been injured for more games than he has played, and Karl Fairbank is only a part-time prop.

Even Test regulars like Phil Clarke and Denis Betts have sometimes fallen below their usual high standards, although that could make them all the more dangerous today, when St Helens' Chris Joynt completes what could be a dashing back row.

There are fewer worries about the overall form of the backs, even if you share the general view that Shaun Edwards came out second best to Freeman in an intriguing half-back battle at Wigan.

The centre partnership of Paul Newlove and Gary Connolly is as good as could be wished and Jonathan Davies's kicking and general game are in fine order at Warrington - albeit from centre rather than the full-back role he fills today.

It is to be hoped, however, that John Devereux begins to live down his reputation for being accident- prone on the big occasion. His last two games at Wembley, as he will need no reminding, have been marred by expensive blunders. So was his appearance for Wales against the tourists less than a fortnight ago.

There is a line of thought in dogmatic rugby league circles that union converts are intrinsically flakey and unreliable. He must add no more fuel to that fire, but it says something for Jason Robinson on the other wing that there are no fears about his temperament in his first Test.

The match at Wigan which helped Robinson to win his cap has given a timely boost to interest in this Test. Ticket sales had been worryingly sluggish - a commentary on the British fans' reluctance to treat the Kiwis as a major challenge - but the hope now is that spectators paying on the gate will bring the attendance up towards the 40,000 that will make the decision to come to Wembley a success.

Teams for under-19 international

GREAT BRITAIN ACADEMY: Penny; Roper (both Warrington), Martin (Leigh), Stevens (Wigan), Harris (Warrington); Holroyd (Leeds), McAtee (St Helens); Sykes (Castleford), Rowley (Leigh), Hilton (Warrington), Flynn (Wakefield Trinity), Schultz (Leeds), Farrell (Wigan, capt). Substitutes: Smith (Castleford), Haughton (Wigan), Lawless (Halifax), Wainwright (Warrington).

JUNIOR KIWIS: Paul (Te Atatu, capt); Johnsen (Hokitika), Vaikona (Lincoln University), Malietoa-Brown (Papakura), Lima; Noovao (both Otahuhu), Swann (Marist); Weepu (Wainuiomata), Beirne (Papanui), Fatialofa (Marist), Vagana (Richmond Rovers), Kelemete (Porirua), Henare (Otahuhu). Substitutes: Manihera (Eastern Suburbs), Faataape (Papanui), Chan (Taupo Broncos), Johnson (Takahiwai).

Referee: J-L Aribaud (France).

(Photograph omitted)

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