Australia’s World Cup semi-final with New Zealand will be decided by a number of mouth-watering positional battles, while the Kangaroos just might have an edge due to one player.
Cooper Cronk believes the teams are so evenly matched across the park that it sets up the best game of the World Cup.
“It is getting juicy when you think about the history between these two nations,” Cronk said on Fox League’s World Cup preview show.
Watch every match of the Rugby League World Cup LIVE & Exclusive to Fox Sports, on Kayo. New to Kayo? Start your free trial now >
Madge talks through huge semi final! | 04:30
“If you go on paper, Manu vs Tedesco, Hughes vs Cleary, Murray vs Papali’i. There is some good match-up across the park and at this level at semi-final time of a World Cup there is not much difference.
“There is not many weaknesses in the opposition.”
Cronk believes New Zealand have relied on individual brilliance to get them this far in the World Cup, but warned it will take a complete team performance to topple the world champion Australians.
“You look at that New Zealand list and my history of rugby league doesn’t go back that far, but that is arguably one of the better New Zealand teams they have ever put on paper,” Cronk said.
“The game against Fiji, New Zealand had some very good individual performances.
“But they were under the pump and were lucky to get away with that.
“If New Zealand want to play to their potential and to their reputation and win the World Cup, they will have to come together as a team.
MORE NRL NEWS
BACKFLIP: Samoa stars’ stunning turnaround after shock coach coup
‘NEVER AS LONG AS I LIVE’: Prodigy’s Broncos contract dispute gets ugly
TRANSFER WHISPERS: ‘Lock me up for life’ – Latrell’s bid to finish career at Souths
TRANSFER CENTRE: ‘Extremely tough competitor’ – Dragons rake retires
Munster & Hughes to put bromance aside! | 03:05
“Manu just went out on his own and did huge numbers, but they need to find that balance.
“Hughes has got it. Brown has got it. Brandon Smith sometimes just goes about his own business.
“But if they can put it together for the best 80 minutes of their footy I think they can get the job done.
“I will always pick Australia, but if New Zealand put it together as a team, they have individual brilliance that can win this game.”
Michael Ennis believes Australia’s form has mirrored New Zealand’s at the World Cup with both sides still searching for a complete performance heading into the semi-final.
“I think both sides are very similar in that they haven’t put an 80 minute performance together,” Ennis said.
Get all the latest NRL news, highlights and analysis delivered straight to your inbox with Fox Sports Sportmail. Sign up now!!
Crichton relishing facing ‘best mates’ | 03:35
“I think they have been very patchy. They have had really good individual moments and really good patches, but I don’t think either side has played really well as a team.
“England have been the best team. The most cohesive team, so it will be fascinating to see who settles into the contest early.”
Read on for the match-ups that will decide Australia’s semi-final against New Zealand.
TEDESCO VS MANU
The battle of the fullbacks James Tedesco and Joey Manu will be worth the price of admission alone and who comes out on top could have a massive impact on the result.
The Roosters teammates are in the top five players in the world and will be looking to get one over on each other to lead their team to a World Cup final.
Cooper Cronk believes the class in both line-ups will mean the semi-final could come down to one play and Tedesco and Manu will be leading candidates to produce it on the biggest stage.
“A little bit like the big games in NRL semi-finals and Origin it will come down to a moment and we have got some of the best players in the world playing in this game,” Cronk said.
“Tedesco vs Manu look out.”
Kangaroos second-rower and Roosters teammate Angus Crichton knows both Tedesco and Manu very well and has been impressed by the New Zealand’s stars form at fullback.
“I have played with both of them for a while now and we are pretty spoiled for choice out at the Roosters,” Crichton said.
“I’m loving watching Joey play fullback and whenever Teddy is in Origin and Joey steps up to play fullback for the Roosters he is always unbelievable.
“It came as no surprise how well he has played here. I have watched a lot of him as a fan and as a mate and I’m looking forward to lining up against him as opposition.”
New Zealand coach Michael Maguire believes Manu needs to get the balance right between backing his instincts and playing within the team’s structures.
“We have got someone like Joey Manu who is an out and out freak of a player and his qualities can sometimes be overdemanding in what he is doing,” Maguire said.
“It is about getting the right balance between that, but having Joey in the team and playing the way he is, it is great to be a part of.”
Tedesco was rested for the second half against Lebanon due to a cork, but will be pumped for a big game against his heir apparent in Manu and the winner of that battle could very well be heading to a World Cup final.
HUGHES VS CLEARY
Nathan Cleary and Jahrome Hughes have had some epic battles playing for the Panthers and Storm in recent years and this one will be no different and no less important to the result.
Michael Ennis believes Australia’s edge in the kicking department could have a massive impact on how the game plays out.
“The big thing that stands out for me is the kicking game of the Australian side,” Ennis said.
“Australia have got Cameron Munster the left-footer and Nathan Cleary. Both very good kickers and very capable.
“Ben Hunt has a wonderful boot out of dummyhalf, so too Harry Grant.
“You look at this New Zealand side and the kicking game will be critical in the slippery conditions.
“Dylan Brown needs to step up and take some pressure off Jahrome Hughes, who will be the dominant kicker I would imagine and he has a very good kicking game.
“But you look at Joey Manu doesn’t kick the footy. Brandon Smith doesn’t kick the footy a lot, so a lot of pressure will be on Jahrome Hughes to get his kicking game right.
“Compared to the Australian side where they have got a number of weapons across the park that are able to kick.
“Physically I think they will be able to handle it without Jared Waerea-Hargreaves there.
“I like Kieran Foran coming off the interchange bench. I thought he was good last week.
“But Australia have more kicking options.”
New Zealand legend Gary Freeman believes Hughes will have to have the game of his life for the Kiwis to advance to the final.
“He’s the key for this side,” Freeman told SEN radio.
“If they are going to beat Australia, we need this bloke, Jahrome Hughes, to fire on all cylinders even though he’s maybe still carrying a little bit of an injury.
“He needs to really have one of the biggest games he’s ever had.
“Because on the other side of the coin, you don’t want to be getting on that plane Saturday going, ‘Oh, we missed our chances’.”
Freeman believes Hughes’’s kicking game and directness in attack can lead the Kiwis to victory.
“I just think he is a class above the other halfbacks in the competition (and) I love the way he leads the team around the field,” Freeman said.
“When he was missing from Melbourne, they struggled.
“They lacked direction, they lacked a kicking game and one thing about young Hughes is he’s tough, and you’ve got to have that mentality that you’re tough and you’ll take the forwards on.
“He loves taking the ball to the line, that’s what I like about him.
“I’d go and watch a kid like that play … he excites me because of what he can do for the team.”
Cleary is yet to put in a complete performance at international level, with his goal kicking off against Lebanon.
But now that he has cemented the halfback role, Cleary will have the confidence to play the way he does for Penrith and if his combination with Cameron Munster clicks it could be lights out for New Zealand.
RCG VS NZ PACK
Reagan Campbell-Gillard has been recalled and is expected to start against New Zealand in a sign Mal Meninga is trying to fight fire with fire.
Michael Ennis believes Campbell-Gillard’s selection is a reaction to the slow ruck speed in the World Cup to date and he will be vital against twin towers James Fisher-Harris and Jesse Bromwich early.
“The big one for me is Reagan Campbell-Gillard coming back into the side,” Ennis said.
“It suggests that they feel like they need to be a little more physical coming up against this New Zealand pack, which is ferocious. It’s big it’s powerful and athletic.
“I think Australia have tended to go with the smaller more athletic type of pack over the World Cup, but watching the way things have been policed over there in terms of the ruck.
“We have heard Mal Meninga say how slow the ruck is, so those smaller guys with the leg speed haven’t been able to make the inroads that they get to over in Australia with the quicker format.
“So he has gone the big power game with big Tino Fa’asuamaleaui coming off the bench, who I think will be a great injection for them.”
Australia are light on for genuine props in their squad after a number of key defections to Samoa, which is why Campbell-Gillard was recalled and it could be an area that New Zealand have an edge with Jake Trbojevic starting up front.
LATRELL THE POINT OF DIFFERENCE
Given how even Australia and New Zealand are on paper, the World Cup semi-final could be decided by a moment of brilliance.
While both sides have plenty of players that can produce it, Cooper Cronk believes Australia have an edge in the centres, with the game set up for Latrell Mitchell to dominate.
“They are very similar line-ups for me,” Cronk said.
“The forward packs are very similar. There is a little bit more size on the New Zealand bench, which may come into play at the back end of the halves.
“The spines are basically eight of the best players in the world.
“The point of difference for me is Latrell Mitchell. He has that ability. He may only touch the ball eight times a game, but he will score two and put on a flick pass for Addo-Carr and he has got that lethal left edge combination.
“I think that is the point of difference, Latrell Mitchell and Jack Wighton up against Peta Hiku and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.
“I think that is the area. If New Zealand can defend well I think that is the key. They need to defend really well to beat Australia, but if they don’t I think Latrell Mitchell might be able to have a day out.”
Mitchell has said during the week he wants to become the greatest Indigenous player ever and if he can lead the Kangaroos to World Cup glory that will only add to his legacy.