PLENTY TO PONDER: Mal Meninga will coach his first game with the Kangaroos.
PLENTY TO PONDER: Mal Meninga will coach his first game with the Kangaroos. Mark Kolbe

Pressure on Meninga to beat the No. 1 Kiwis

IT hasn't grabbed the public's attention because of the high drama surrounding Parramatta's salary cap scandal, but tonight's Test against New Zealand is one of the most important Australia has played in many years.

Having surrendered its world No.1 ranking after three straight losses to the Kiwis, former Queensland Origin coach Mal Meninga faces the prospect of equalling the worst losing streak to the Kiwis in his debut as Kangaroos coach.

The last time Australia lost four straight games to New Zealand was in 1952-53 when the Kangaroos were beaten 49-25 in Brisbane, 19-9 at the SCG in Sydney, 25-5 in Christchurch and 12-11 in Wellington. Australia narrowly averted a fifth straight loss by beating New Zealand 18-16 at Auckland's Carlaw Park in 1953.

Those Australian sides contained some great players, including the legendary Clive Churchill, Ken Kearney, Ken McCaffery, Bob Banks and powerful centre Harry Wells.

Unlike the seven-day build-up to Origin, Meninga has had only four days and two training sessions to prepare his first Test side to do battle with a New Zealand team which has been torn apart by injuries to key players, including fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and suspensions to three players who have been stood down for disciplinary reasons.

Meninga has banked on the vast experience of his senior players, including his all-Queensland spine of fullback Darius Boyd (17 Tests), skipper Cameron Smith (44), who moves to within one Test of equalling the forward record of 45 held by Petero Civoniceva, and Maroons halves Johnathan Thurston (32) and Cooper Cronk (27).

While Meninga conceded New Zealand had done well to lift the No.1 ranking off the Aussies, he didn't hide from the fact his mission was to make the Kiwis' reign at the top as short as possible.

"It hurts. I am a Kangaroo and I am Australian, but you also admire what the Kiwis have done," he said.

"We won't have any excuses if we don't play well tonight."

Meninga is fortunate New Zealand is under-strength.

Issac Luke's slow start to the season has gone against him, while damaging winger Manu Vattuvei, and forwards Ben Matulino and Bodene Thompson have all been stood down over the Warriors' prescription drug affair.

And things have gotten even worse for New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney, with Roosters winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who had his foot in a moon boot earlier in the week, ruled out.

"It doesn't bother us in that sense. I mean last year we were underdogs, and the year before that ... we'll just prepare as well as we can," Kearney said.

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