New Zealand lose key players to injury in the countdown to showpiece event.
Australia are hopeful star fullback Billy Slater will be fit for Saturday’s Rugby League World Cup final against defending champions New Zealand after naming him in their initial 19-man squad.
Slater turned a knee in the quarter-final victory over the United States and missed the semi-final win over Fiji, but has been studiously following a recuperation programme in a bid to get him back on the paddock.
“Billy Slater has been included in the squad, with a final decision on his fitness to be made on game day,” the Kangaroos announced on Thursday, with Greg Inglis to start in the number one shirt in Slater’s absence.
Hooker Cameron Smith again skippers the team, with Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston likely to be pulling the strings from half-back.
There was disappointment in the Kiwi camp, however, when second-rower Frank Pritchard missed the cut because of a hamstring injury.
“We made a final decision on Frank this morning,” said New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney.
“He’d love to play, and we’d love to have him there, but the stakes are as high as they get this weekend and he’s not 100 percent.
“It’s naturally very tough for him to be this close and ruled out, but we’re very happy with our cover.”
Kearney named three wingers in his pre-match squad of 19, which will be trimmed to 17 just before the 1430 GMT kick-off at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium.
Veteran Jason Nightingale has been joined by Manu Vatuvei and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who both had injury concerns this week.
Otherwise, the Kiwis named a similar squad to that which edged England 20-18 in a thrilling semi-final at Wembley last weekend, with just Greg Eastwood and Vatuvei coming into the 19 and Sam Moa and Pritchard dropping out.
Kangaroos forward Matthew Scott believes that last-four clash will put the Kiwis in good stead for Saturday’s match.
“New Zealand had a tougher game and they showed they can grind out a win,” said Scott.
“When you’re preparing for a World Cup final that’s probably the best preparation you can have.
“We have had relatively straightforward games against USA (62-0) and Fiji (64-0), but New Zealand were put to the test and that should benefit them on Saturday.
“Having a tougher test would have been better for us but I don’t think it will make too much of a difference. You can’t look back too much on these games, you have just got to take what you can out of it.”
Squads (with two to be cut for match-day squad of 17)
Jesse Bromwich, Greg Eastwood, Kieran Foran, Alex Glenn, Bryson Goodwin, Shaun Johnson, Sam Kasiano, Kevin Locke, Issac Luke, Simon Mannering (capt), Ben Matulino, Jason Nightingale, Frank-Paul Nu’uausala, Elijah Taylor, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Manu Vatuvei, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Dean Whare, Sonny Bill Williams
Greg Bird, Darius Boyd, Daly Cherry-Evans, Cooper Cronk, Andrew Fifita, Jarryd Hayne, Paul Gallen, Greg Inglis, Brett Morris, Nate Myles, Josh Papalii, Corey Parker, Matthew Scott, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith (capt), James Tamou, Brent Tate, Sam Thaiday, Johnathan Thurston