While the New Zealand coach, Stephen Kearney, is doing his best to give his world champions the tag of underdogs before Saturday’s World Cup final against Australia, Kangaroos forward Greg Bird is having none of it.
New Zealand are the reigning Four Nations champions as well as the World Cup holders, but those victories, which both came in Brisbane, are their only successes over Australia in the last five years.
“Looking at their team, we’re well aware of the calibre of player they have,” said Kearney, who is looking to become the first coach to retain the title in 59 years of the World Cup. “We do start as underdogs but the lads are confident that, if they can bring their best performance on Saturday, we give ourselves a great opportunity.”
Kearney was at the helm, alongside Australian coaching guru Wayne Bennett, five years ago, but New Zealand have just three survivors from the team that shocked the Aussies in the final 34-20.
Simon Mannering, who has taken over the captaincy, Manu Vatuvei and Issac Luke have a host of new team-mates, including Sonny Bill Williams, Shaun Johnson – who is well on the way to filling the boots of former talisman Benji Marshall – and four members of the Sydney Roosters team who won last month’s NRL Grand Final.
“They’re stronger than ’08,” Bird said. “Throw in Sonny Bill and a lot of the Roosters forwards – Frank-Paul [Nu’uausala] and [Jared] Waerea-Hargreaves, they’re in career-best form. They’ve been leading the way throughout this tournament. We’ve got to be better. We weren’t better in 2008 but I’m confident we can get the job done on Saturday.”
Australia overcame a shaky start to the tournament against England, trailing 10-0 after the first quarter before going on to win 28-20, and they have not conceded a try in their last four matches.
“We had a bit of a bumpy start when the English came out firing and got on top of us early,” Bird said. “But we regained our composure. Since then we’ve made sure our defence is the main priority. We’ve got a team of superstars that can go out at any time and rack up points. But defending consistently for 80 minutes is one of the hardest things to do in rugby league.
“It will definitely go up a level, going up against the old foe. They are always tough, tight battles.”