Australian Kangaroos v New Zealand Kiwis
GIO Stadium, Friday 8 April
Can you feel it?
The nights are getting longer, the heaters are being dusted off and the standard of footy is getting better each day.
It can only mean one thing: the rep season is about to get underway.
Australia and New Zealand will renew their rivalry on Friday with a much-anticipated clash in the nation's capital that pits the Kangaroos' tried and tested veterans against the Kiwis' rejigged, potent spine.
It was one-way traffic in 2016 with Australia overpowering the Kiwis 90-22 across four games, including a 34-8 demolition in the Four Nations final at Anfield.
Many will point to the fact Mal Meninga's men have dominated these one-off mid-season fixtures, but on paper this appears to be the strongest Kiwis side assembled in years with Kieran Foran and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck returning for the first time since 2015.
The Kangaroos have stuck solid to the side that toured the UK, with the only changes forced by injury. Andrew Fifita and David Klemmer headline a new look front row, while Johnathan Thurston (calf) is expected to play.
Why the Kangaroos can win: There's something about Cameron Smith-led teams lifting in milestone matches. Whether it be the Storm, Maroons or Kangaroos, players seem to rise for the big occasions to honour their teammates' achievements. We've seen the mighty Queensland sides over the years send out retiring champions with a win, while the Storm are rarely beaten when someone runs on for a milestone game. On Friday, the Kangaroos skipper will become just the second player to feature in 50 Tests in the green and gold, and you can bet your bottom dollar his teammates will do everything in their power to make sure he celebrates the occasion with a win.
Why the Kiwis can win: A lot has been made about New Zealand's formidable spine, but if truth be told it gets cancelled out – if not trumped – by Australia's tried and tested quartet. Instead, the Kiwis' advantage lies up front where they will look to exploit a potential weakness in an Australian side missing props Matt Scott, Aaron Woods and Shannon Boyd from last year's Four Nations final. Kiwis skipper Jesse Bromwich will lead the way for the black and whites up front, while Russell Packer will be keen to repay the faith after six years away from the international scene. The man most likely to wreak havoc is Sea Eagles enforcer Martin Taupau who has been in destructive form in 2017. The rampaging prop leads the league with 29 offloads and is coming off a season-high 229 metres against a Rabbitohs pack that featured arguably the best forward in the game in Sam Burgess. Oh, and then there's Jason Taumalolo. He's still pretty good.
The history: Played 134; Australia 99: New Zealand 32; Drawn 3. It looked like the Kiwis had found their groove against their trans-Tasman rivals with three straight wins in 2014 and 2015, but the Kangaroos showed last year that they are far from a spent force with four wins from as many starts, including a 16-0 shutout in the corresponding fixture in Newcastle.
What are the odds: The money is pretty much split 50/50 in the Anzac Test with Sportsbet punters sensing some value in New Zealand. Eighty per cent of the money at the line is with the Kiwis with the points start. New Zealand 1-12 is actually the most popular winning margin. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Sideline officials: Brett Suttor and Chris Butler.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
NRL.com predicts: It might be a one-off Test but Friday's clash holds extra weight with the winner sure to take plenty of confidence heading into the World Cup at the end of the year. The Kiwis will ask plenty of questions in attack, but it's whether they can hold their own in defence that will determine the outcome of this one. Expect the Kangaroos to come out firing in the Anzac Test en route to a 22-10 win.
This article first appeared on NRL.com