But, in recent years, New Zealand have developed the happy knack of producing their best when it matters most, beating Australia in the World Cup final in 2008, before following up and repeating the dose in last year’s Four Nations final. It is a pattern Kangaroos hooker Cameron Smith is determined to break at this year’s tournament, which kicks off this weekend with Australia facing the Kiwis in Warrington.
“They’ve certainly closed the gap,” Smith says of Australia’s trans-Tasman rivals. “It’s not the way it used to be when Australia were the out-and-out number one side. The coaching and the skills have improved – you only need to look at the NRL this year, where the Warriors played really well, and they’re made up mostly of Kiwis. We’ve had some great games against them – it just so happens the two times they’ve beaten us have in been finals, in probably the biggest games over the past three years.”
The performances of five-eighth Benji Marshall have been a major factor in the Kiwis’ ability to upset Australia in recent times. The superstar pivot has been at his very best against Australia – he engineered New Zealand’s breathtaking comeback in last year’s final, setting up Jason Nightingale for the winning try with a centimetre-perfect chip kick in the dying minutes. But Smith, while acknowledging the threat posed by Marshall, insists the Kiwi forwards are just as much a driving force.
“He’s a fantastic player, one of the guys who really leads their side,” Smith says of Marshall. ”But the whole side is very aggressive and physical and they have a tough forward pack. You can have plenty of skills and plenty of talent in the back half, but if the forwards don’t do their jobs consistently then the guys out wide can struggle.”
After the grudge match against the Kiwis, Australia will arrive in London to play England at Wembley – part of a bumper double-header on Saturday, November 5, with New Zealand facing Wales beforehand. Australia will then face Wales in Wrexham before, barring some absolute boilovers, competing in the final in Leeds on November 19.
The scheduling of the tournament is not ideal for the southern-hemisphere sides. The fact that is comes just weeks after the end of the NRL season means some players are nursing injuries, and travelling to the UK means they forego part of their well-earned break before they return for pre-season training. Still, Smith insists the players remain desperate to represent their countries.
“There’s no doubt the players are very passionate and it’s the same for New Zealand and England,” Smith says. “It’s hard to fit a tournament in but we thoroughly enjoy playing for our country. You look at a guy like Corey Parker, who’s been playing first grade for 11 years and now finally gets a shot to play for Australia. It’s exciting.
“We’ve had some injuries so it’s been a bit difficult, but I think we’ve handled it pretty well. It means we’ve got a good mix this year and things are going really smoothly.”
While the Australians’ focus will be on avenging last year’s defeat to New Zealand, the tournament also doubles as the swansong for Kangaroos captain Darren Lockyer, a player whose durability and reliability have been an asset to the national side ever since he made his Test debut in 1998. Now, 56 caps later, Lockyer is set to retire as a giant of the sport.
“Everyone knows he’s a legend – not just a great footballer but also a great bloke,” Smith says. “I’ve been lucky enough to play a fair bit of football with him over the years. He’s a great role model.
“All the boys love playing alongside him but he certainly hasn’t made it about him. It’s all about getting the job done. He’s unselfish like that. Obviously we’ll all be keen to put in a big performance for him.”
For Smith, 2011 has already been a memorable year. His club, the Melbourne Storm, bounced back emphatically from the wasted season of 2010, when their campaign was derailed by having their points stripped after revelations of salary cap rorting. Two premierships, won in 2007 and 2009, were annulled and the subsequent upheaval led to superstar wing Greg Inglis joining South Sydney. There were concerns the club would never recover; Smith, though, kept the faith, and was vindicated when Melbourne finished top of the table after the 2011 regular season. A grand final showdown against arch-rival manly beckoned, but the Storm were instead beaten by the New Zealand Warriors in the preliminary final.
“Internally, there was never any doubt,” Smith says. “We knew we had some challenges to work through and a lot of people outside probably thought it would take a few years for us to get back up there. But I’ve been at the club for 10 years and, in my mind, there was never any doubt.
“When we were beaten by the Warriors, we were shattered. We had higher expectations, including winning that game, but it wasn’t to be. But a week passed and we had a review of the season and we realised we had actually achieved something pretty special. We won the minor premiership and set a club record for consecutive wins.
“Some really good things came out of 2011 and our coach, Craig Bellamy, reminded us that we really gave people a lift – the members and the fans. So I’m pretty proud, even though we fell short.”
Smith may be entitled to extract a silver lining from the Storm’s resurgent season but, should Australia get turned over by New Zealand in another Four Nations final next month, it’s unlikely the same kind of ‘honour in defeat’ assessment will wash.