By Michael Burgess in Manchester
Jason Taumalolo is backing the Kiwis to lift to another level this week against the Kangaroos, despite the physical nature of last Sunday's win over England.
The match in Huddersfield was a brutal game, where the two forward packs battered each other to a standstill in an old-fashioned test match.
Taumalolo, this year's Dally M award winner, rated it as the hardest match he has played this year, perhaps alongside only September's Cowboys-Broncos elimination semifinal that went to extra time.
"I honestly never thought I would be a part of a game like that," said Taumalolo, who played a lung-busting 75 minutes. "The closest to that was against the Broncos in the finals. That game on [Sunday] reminded me of that. At certain points we were down, we were going try-for-try and Shaun [Johnson] got us over the line with the field goal."
The game took a definite toll, with several of the Kiwis forwards moving gingerly at the first training session of the week yesterday in Manchester.
But Taumalolo expects the Kiwis to be better for the run, and push the Kangaroos to the limit this weekend. Australia beat the Kiwis 26-16 in Perth earlier this month.
"The boys have improved a lot from the Perth game," said Taumalolo. "We only had a week to get ourselves together and at the time I didn't think the boys were comfortable with each other. We came from different playing styles - from Melbourne, Sydney, Warriors, Cowboys. Now that we have had a few weeks together I'm confident the boys will play a lot better than we did in the last game [against Australia]."
Sunday's game looks finely balanced. Australia remain the most organised and clinical team in the world, and coach Mal Meninga's selections - especially the focus on size in the backline - has given the Kangaroos a combative edge.
Logic, form and history are on their side, while the Kiwis remain the wildcards. New Zealand can be the best side in the world on their day, and the combination of Johnson and Issac Luke running off the bulldozing forwards in front of them can be hard to stop.
The key for the Kiwis is how they complete their sets, build momentum and restrict the opportunities offered to the opposition.
In Newcastle, Perth and Huddersfield this year, the Kiwis opened the door for their opponents with mistakes and poor options. But England weren't good enough to take advantage, and New Zealand lifted their defensive effort considerably in that 17-16 win.
Taumalolo believes the Kangaroos are favourites, perhaps deservedly so after their two recent wins.
"Most people would think they are the team to beat," said Taumalolo. "But hopefully we can play up to our potential and pull off an upset. But in saying that, all 17 of us need to turn up on Saturday night (Sunday NZT) and play a great game of footy because any team with Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk and JT (Johnathan Thurston) is going to be hard to beat."
The Kiwis trained in Manchester today before making a slow journey down to Birmingham, as they were caught up in heavy traffic on the M6 motorway. They'll have a day off tomorrow before the captain's run at Ricoh Stadium in Coventry on Friday (Saturday NZT).
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