England v Samoa
Saturday, 4pm (AEST), 5pm (ADST)
The weather's getting warmer, old blokes are cutting about the beach in Speedos like it's socially acceptable and the NRL season is already fading fast into the rear view mirror.
Thankfully for any league fan worth their salt there's the third instalment of the Four Nations tournament to ease the pain of five mostly footy-free months, and we've got the might of the mother country taking on newcomers Samoa to kick it all off.
And with two of the bigger packs seen on the international stage in recent memory, and just as much muscle out wide, the opening clash of Saturday's double-header promises to be a brutal affair. Which makes it rather fitting that British Bulldog James Graham will be skippering the English as tour captain Sean O'Loughlin sits out the match with a quad strain.
Based on his outstanding 2014 campaign, where the fire in Graham's belly was matched only by his skill with ball in hand and his phenomenal engine, the 29-year-old is a fine choice to lead what Kiwi coach Steve Kearney declared the "form forward pack in the world" earlier this month.
2014 Super League Man of Steel Daryl Clark will offer plenty off the bench as a shock dummy-half weapon for the English as new halves pairing Gareth Widdop and Matty Smith steer the ship, while the back three of Sam Tomkins, Josh Charnley and Ryan Hall (all 105 kilos of him) provide the strike power out wide. Steve McNamara's 17 also features seven whose last outing was in a grand final, with Graham and South Sydney's Burgess twins backing up from the NRL decider, while Charnley, Smith, and second-rowers Joel Tomkins and Liam Farrell turned out for Wigan in their 14-6 loss to St. Helens in the Super League final.
The Samoans meanwhile join 'The Big Three' of international league courtesy of a bruising 32-16 defeat of Fiji in May, and coach Matt Parish has recalled nine from the historic win that booked the island nation's maiden Four Nations appearance.
They'll be without Tautau Moga, Reni Maitua and Sauaso Sue, who remain under investigation by the NRL Integrity Unit following an incident at a Brisbane nightspot last week, but still boast a formidable forward contingent and enough big game experience to worry the Poms if they're off their game. Broncos firebrand Josh McGuire leads a pack featuring heavy hitters Frank Pritchard, Sam Tagataese and David Fa'alogo, while UK-bound Ben Roberts goes round for what could be his last few games on Australian turf with a back five outside him that broke just under 300 tackles between them across the course of the NRL season.
Watch Out England: As is to be expected of an island nation that lists 100-kilogram outside backs amongst its chief exports, the Samoans have speed and power to burn in the three-quarter line. Joey Leilua and Daniel Vidot both weigh in at well over 100 kegs, while North Queensland's Antonio Winterstein and Cronulla's Ricky Leutele punch at just a tad under, and to a man each of them know what to do when given a bit of room to move. The right-edge combo of Vidot (who averages 163 metres a game – fourth best in the NRL) and Leilua (92 tackle busts in 2014 – equal 12th in the comp) is particularly potent. On the other flank Winterstein is in fine touch, having finished 2014 with 15 tries and 16 line breaks, while Leutele is capping a breakout year with a well-deserved Test debut, after most memorably producing a mother of a right fend and leaving some bloke named Sonny Bill Williams stone cold for one of the better individual tries of the year.
Watch Out Samoa: It's hard to argue with Kearney given the output of the Pom's front-row rotation during the NRL Grand Final. Defensive lines may not be able to tell the difference between the Burgess twins but they certainly feel the full effect of the pair, none more so than the Bulldogs, who George and Tom bent to the tune of a combined 387 running metres that day. While the British Bunnies turned in one of their best performances yet in the red and green, Graham used everything in his considerable powers, as well as a few plays outside the regular playbook, to keep the Dogs in the contest, and finished up his 2014 campaign as the best prop in the game. Put your bottom dollar on the likelihood that he's captaining his country will see him strive to pack even more into his game – assuming that's even possible. Even without the most illustrious Burgess brother in their midst, the Northerners still possess the best go-forward in the tournament and will be licking their chops at the prospect of coming up against Samoa's less heralded pack.
Plays To Watch: Gareth Widdop to back himself with a cheeky chip and chase job from almost anywhere outside his own 40 metre line; Roberts to prove particularly dangerous grubbering into the in-goal after his short kicking game came on in leaps and bounds at Melbourne; Wigan flankman Charnley to sniff out a try from virtually anywhere considering he's currently punched out 130 of the buggers in 120 first grade games; and the Samoans to pack in plenty of second-phase play – Leilua, Vidot, Winterstein, and Jesse Sene-Lefao each recorded more than 15 offloads across the course of the NRL season.
Where It Will Be Won: Up front the English have the advantage when it comes to skill, size and big-game experience – not that that means the Samoans will change their approach one iota. The likes of McGuire, Pritchard and Tagataese will still rip and tear in a bid to hold their own against England's five-star pack. The Poms should still get over the top of their Samoan counterparts, and should they do so it's in the halves where they hold the ace up their sleeve. St. George Illawarra's Widdop took to the extra responsibility at the Dragons this year like a duck to water with 20 try-assists and 21 line break assists in the NRL, and he won't shirk his role as a senior half now he's back in national colours. Uncapped halfback Smith is also icing his best year to date, one that's featured a grand final appearance with Wigan and selection in Super League's Dream Team, but remains an unknown quantity on the international stage. Which should see Tomkins (18 line break assists, 13 tries and 108 tackle busts in his first NRL season) spend plenty of time flitting in and out of the front line – adding another string to the English bows that the Samoans will struggle to match.
The History: Never played. This will be the first time the two nations have squared off in an official Test, with their one and only prior meeting of sort going the way of the English 38-14 in the 2006 Federation Shield final.
Match Officials: Referee – Gerard Sutton; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Anthony Eliott; Video Referee – Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 4pm (AEST), 5pm (ADST).
The Way We See It: With Graham and the Burgess twins lining up against a Samoan pack with not a shrinking violet in its midst, the opening 20 minutes promises to include a firework or two. And out wide the Samoans do possess the punch to worry the Poms, though with Tomkins, Charnley and Hall – all prolific tryscorers in their own rights – the English have plenty of firepower of their own. And that looks to be the tale of the tape right across the park. McNamara's men look to have Toa Samoa covered in all key departments, with the experience in the halves to guide them home safely. England by at least 12 points.
*This article first appeared on nrl.com