Australia v Samoa
WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Sunday 4pm (AEDT), 3pm (AEST)
Before the tournament began, you could have been forgiven for expecting this final group match to see Australia, with a spot in the final all wrapped up, resting some stars to give rookies like Sione Mata'utia and David Klemmer their first Test caps.
Instead, the suddenly-fragile Australia desperately need to win this match, and the above-mentioned rookies have already debuted after a lacklustre opening match against New Zealand, with one or both set to return for this one.
Amazingly, the Kangaroos need to win just to have a chance of playing in the final; if England beat New Zealand the Aussies need to win and win big.
If New Zealand beat England on Saturday, the Aussies need a win to face the Kiwis in the final while Samoa need to win and to make up a 10-point differential gap on England to reach the decider – certainly do-able, and if the Kiwis win by 10 or more then simply winning would be enough for Samoa.
On the other hand if England beat New Zealand, Samoa's chances will be snuffed out before they take the field on Sunday. The Aussies' chances also take a dip – they'll need to beat Samoa by enough to cover their current 16-point differential gap on England. That gap can go as high as 25 if England win by nine or more – but once England win by 10-plus the Aussies are instead chasing the Kiwis.
Short answer is Australia can guarantee themselves a finals berth with a win of 26-plus.
Phew. On to the actual footy. And to the hyper-impressive Samoan outfit that has now, twice in two weeks, gone within a whisker of being the first fourth-ranked team to win a Four Nations fixture. Two weeks in a row where they have scored the same number of tries as their more-fancied opposition and only gone down by a wobbly goal kick or three.
Their two-point loss to New Zealand was particularly agonising, given they led for most of the game and were only run down in the final few minutes as they felt the effects of a 6-2 second half penalty count against them.
Regardless of what happens this weekend, this Toa Samoa team can hold their heads high, having given two more highly-ranked and more experienced sides a massive run for their money. They have gone in with largely the same side as last week; Pita Godinet has again been named to start at hooker after reverting to the bench last week, while Antonio Winterstein replaces Tautau Moga on the right flank despite the latter's impressive runaway try on debut.
The Aussies themselves are lucky to still be clinging to a chance in this tournament after scraping home by a fingernail – literally – last week. Ryan Hall's fingertip no-try didn't look to be in the same post code as a legitimate four-pointer at full speed but slow-mo replays showed he came agonisingly close to levelling the scores in the dying seconds and handing either Matty Smith or Gareth Widdop a gettable chance at a match-winning conversion that would have bundled the Kangaroos out of a major rugby league tournament finish prior to a decider for the first time since the 1954 World Cup.
It wasn't to be, though, and the big plus for the tournament overall is that result keeps all four teams in with a chance of making or missing the final.
The Kangaroos have gone for a similar 20-man squad minus the injured Beau Scott, with Josh Papalii promoted to starting prop and Sam Thaiday shifting to Scott's back-row position. After impressive debuts last week, Ben Hunt and David Klemmer have again been named outside the 17 on an extended bench, with Robbie Farah, Aidan Guerra and Ryan Hoffman recalled to the 17. Matt Moylan is the new 20th man.
Watch Out Australia: Samoa's rocks-or-diamonds five-eighth Ben Roberts was in sublime touch last week against the Kiwis. Fresh from a classic try-saving tackle early in the match, Roberts showed brilliant vision and no shortage of skill to produce a precision grubber for a Dan Vidot try. Unfortunately for Samoa he came up with the rocks to go with those diamonds late in the match when he took a crucial intercept – only to offload it straight back to the Kiwis a moment later in the lead-up to Shaun Kenny-Dowall's match-winner.
But arguably the main reason Samoa led the Kiwis for most of the way last week was the brutal form of centre Joey Leilua. His stats – 140 metres, two line breaks, a try and a whopping 12 tackle breaks – tell barely half the story. His monstrous fend on Kenny-Dowall – hardly a lightweight – had to be seen to be believed, and his crunching late try-save on Simon Mannering would have been a match-winner had Samoa held on.
Watch Out Samoa: The Aussies had a centre of their own in dominant touch last weekend; Michael Jennings matched Leilua's mark of 12 tackle breaks and earned a try of his own to go with his 154 metres. The only man to better than mark in the Australia-England match was fullback Greg Inglis, who shook off the illness that restricted his involvement a week earlier to notch 158 metres and one try with another disallowed after an obstruction in the lead-up. In a rookie backline where three players entered the match with a combined two Tests of experience, all five were good (especially 18-year-old debutant Sione Mata'utia) but the two old heads showed the way. Inglis has the full range of attributes and when he brings those to bear he can be near unstoppable, while Jennings' speed and evasiveness were on full display when he beat three players to score after Greg Bird sent him into space.
Plays To Watch: Kangaroos five-eighth Daly Cherry-Evans put boot to ball just twice all game last week as experienced Storm duo Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith handled almost all the kicking duties. But he still produced what was surely his best ever game for either Queensland or Australia as he focused on his running game – look for Cronk to control proceedings as the dominant half while Cherry-Evans continues to ease himself into being an international playmaker.
For Samoa, there has been no shortage of spirit, passion and aggression – as we would have expected – although for the most part the execution has been even better than what most would have been expected. Sadly their biggest problem has been the lack of a recognised goal kicker. They lost a five-tries-apiece meeting with England then a three-tries-all match against the Kiwis as Ben Roberts, Kyle Stanley and Tim Lafai combined for three goals from eight attempts. If the Samoans are to down the Aussies you'd expect it to be tight – let's see if whoever takes the shots has polished up over the week.
Where It Will Be Won: The playmakers. The big, tough Samoan pack is every chance of matching it with the undermanned Aussie forward rotation and their slick three-quarter line gives up no advantage. But with a spine made up of players boasting Dally M Medals, premierships, Clive Churchill medals, World Cup titles and countless Origin wins, the Aussies have the edge where it counts. Greg Inglis faces off against a makeshift fullback in Wests Tigers centre Tim Simona. Cooper Cronk is opposite utility Kyle Stanley, 2014 halfback of the year Daly Cherry-Evans marks journeyman playmaker Ben Roberts and arguably the greatest player of modern times, Cameron Smith, is named opposite the inexperienced Pita Godinet. The Samoan spine has aimed up admirably so far in the tournament but will need to reach a new level to down the Kangaroos.
The History: Played 1; Australia 1, Samoa 0. The score-line on the one and only previous meeting between these two didn't end well for a Samoan outfit with not too many household names. It was back in the 2000 World Cup, and modern day fans may remember the likes of Frank Puletua, David Solomona, Monty Betham, Henry Fa'afili and Jerry Seu Seu – but they were up against it facing a star-studded side. Names like Johns, Fittler, Webcke, Lockyer and Tallis ran riot in a 66-10 thrashing. We reckon this one will be closer.
Match Officials: Referee – Gerard Sutton; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Ian Smith.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 4pm (AEDT), 3pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The Kangaroos are slowly growing into their new-look combinations and while the Samoans have gone within a whisker of two almighty upsets they face a massive mountain here. We'd expect this to be close for a long way but the Aussies to get the job done in the end. Kangaroos by 12.
*The article first appeared on www.NRL.com