WELLINGTON (AFP) – Australia’s stranglehold on world rugby league will be tested when they face a highly motivated New Zealand side seeking rare back-to-back wins against their neighbours in Saturday’s Four Nations final.
The defending champions know they have a mountain to climb after being thrashed 30-12 in the first round by the unbeaten Kiwis, and then being unable to train earlier this week when a virus swept through the team.
Kangaroos back-rower Greg Bird described their build-up to the final as “a shambles” and sensed everything was leaning New Zealand’s way.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been going into games as underdogs,” he said of a side who have reached the final of every tournament they have contested in the past 60 years.
The Australian trophy cabinet boasts five of seven Tri and Four Nations titles, and 10 of 14 World Cups.
“I don’t know what the odds are, but we definitely are the underdogs,” Bird said Thursday as the Kangaroos mustered a full squad for training for the first time this week.
The Kiwis, who last achieved consecutive wins over the Kangaroos in 1953, have been buoyed by the ease with which they thumped the defending champions on their own turf four weeks ago.
Australia, who are also the reigning World Cup holders, bounced back from that shock loss to beat England and Samoa.
But their preparations then took a step backwards with the virus forcing the cancellation of training on Tuesday and Wednesday, notably laying low key playmakers Daly Cherry-Evans and Cooper Cronk.
“You might have one player go down but not five or six. It’s something different to deal with but the doctors, physio and the coaching staff are on top of it,” Bird said. “It’s been a bit of a shambles.”
Australia were already down on manpower with a host of senior players, including stars Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater and Brett Morris unavailable for the tournament.
But lock Corey Parker remained upbeat, saying the Kangaroos were working on the defensive patterns that let them down when they first played New Zealand.
“From where we were in game one to where we are now, we’ve improved in a lot of areas and we’ll tweak that this week,” he said as they trained Thursday.
“I’m not going to give too much away, but when a team scores 30 points on you, defence is certainly a key.”