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COMMENT: Australia and New Zealand well set to justify pre-Four Nations scheduling

The Guardian The Guardian 14/10/2016 Matt Cleary

Kiwis perform the Haka © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images Kiwis perform the Haka The Four Nations is just around the corner, yet before the big kick off in England, rugby league fans will have a chance to watch the two main protagonists go toe to toe half a world away from where the tournament will actually take place in two weeks’ time. 

And it’s entirely reasonable to ask the question: what is this fixture on Saturday afternoon in Perth all about? For money? For content? Because pay-television by dint of its very business model needs to air programs so that people will continue to pay up front for television that comes also with advertisements?

Really? People wouldn’t do that, would they? Next thing they’ll be buying bottles of life-sustaining resources that pour fresh and free from the tap.

Yet here we are, not two weeks since Paul Gallen of the mighty Cronulla Sharks euphorically lifted that heavy, bulky, bronzed statuette of Provan and Summons, and lo did the world of rugby league unite in jubilation.

For how good was that game? All hail the mighty Sharks of the Shire, all hail the mighty warriors of Melbourne Storm, and all hail this greatest game of all rugby league.

The game is so good right now that the TV people tell administrative rugby league people that it should be on all the time or as close as one can get to it.

A TV executive’s perfect world is to take whatever content rates the best and splash it across everything, all the time.

Turn on commercial free-to-air TV any day of the working week and you’ll find a Farmer Wants A Wife He Hasn’t Met To Renovate A Kitchen To Bake Cakes In Survival show.

Thus Australia are playing New Zealand in Perth this weekend in a match shoehorned in between the end of the NRL season and the start of the Four Nations.

Because to go four weeks without rugby league on TV, well, that just is not allowed to be.

So we find ourselves waiting with bated breath before Isaac Luke leads the Kiwis’ eye-popping, crazy-tongue-wagging, deep-vein-throbbing haka against the stoic Kangaroos.

And that’ll be really good, because it always is. And yet …

And yet you could cut the anticipation for this Test match with a baby’s first toe nail. Because we’re only just done with Bathurst. Daylight saving is kicking in. Suburban fields have cricketers on them.

People are getting married. Josh Mansour and Aaron Woods are getting married because they looked at the schedule and there was a window on this weekend where there was no rugby league.

Jesse Bromwich of the Kiwis © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images Jesse Bromwich of the Kiwis Now there is and we’re wondering what sort of a game will it be. You could suggest it’ll be one befitting so important a Test match, that being one that is not very important at all.

But of course no rugby league player – no sportsperson – of Australia or New Zealand runs out in his or her country’s colours to do battle with their cousins from across the pond without giving it their utmost.

Our countries don’t play friendlies with the Cook Islands much less one another. No, there’ll be blood and spit and no quarter given.

But in terms of a result, they don’t even play for a cup or a shield or anything you can drink out of or put in a trophy cabinet to store at your respective league’s HQ.

This Test matters as much as Australia’s recent one-dayers in South Africa and Sri Lanka and West Indies – which is very little – apart from the NRL further dipping testing toes into the waters of expansion by seeing how many people of Perth – population 1.85 million – turn out.

The game itself could be a cracker. New Zealand have a brutal, brilliant pack of forwards: props Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jesse Bromwich and Martin Taupau; back-rowers Kevin Proctor, Adam Blair, Jason Taumalolo and Manu Ma’u. Utility man Tohu Harris was one of Storm’s best in the grand final.

They’ll be without Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Kieran Foran, more’s the pity. But they’ll have Shaun Johnson. And if the halfback can get any sort of ball on the hop, he can shred a D-line like the Ativa Professional Plus HDPro 2000, a noted shredder.

The Kangaroos? No Woods, no Mansour, no Josh Papalii. Paul Gallen and Corey Parker, thanks, but thanks no more. Others have been preferred to Josh McGuire.

And yet there’s beef and brilliance everywhere. Matt Scott and David Klemmer up front will take on that fearsome Kiwis pack, along with Raiders tyro Shannon Boyd of Cowra, an outsized human, an outlier. Tyson Frizell gets the chance to increase the buzz about Tyson Frizell and Sam Thaiday will run wide of the ruck, Trent Merrin closer to it.

Should these players hang onto the ball and make good, hard yards on completed, repeat sets, then the brilliant, perfect Cameron Smith will dish quality pill to one of the best halves combinations rugby league has seen.

Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston know rugby league. They know the dimples on the Steeden as ancient scholars knew Aramaic texts. And they know, as they’ve known since they first began dominating rugby league around 2004, that their role is to snipe around tired forwards, kick with the precision of surgeons, and feed their super-fine outside back division quality, sympathetic, perfect pill.

If they can do that, as they’re expected to, and the game provides the entertainment the TV people are counting on, perhaps even the cynics will be able to enjoy their Saturday afternoon.

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