New Zealand’s stunning Four Nations triumph last season – twice downing a vastly under-strength Australian side – has ramped up interest in the Anzac Test, to be played on May 1 at Suncorp Stadium. If the Kiwis can earn a third straight victory over ‘big brother’, they will take No.1 spot in the world rankings. But the Kangaroos will be supremely confident of bouncing back with several stars back on deck – and they have not lost a mid-season Test since 1998.
Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Paul Gallen, among others, are back in the selection pool after sitting out the tournament, but injuries, form concerns and the stellar efforts of the 2014 international rookies means there’s several positions up for debate in the Kangaroos’ 17.
Conversely, the Kiwis have their full Four Nations contingent to choose from, with a few high-profile absentees from last year’s tournament pushing hard for inclusion. The teams will be announced after Round 8 of the NRL is completed, but we’ve run the rule over both nations’ selection quandaries and come up with the likely squads.
Fullback: Billy Slater’s injury means Greg Inglis will retain the No.1 jumper, which is arguably a blessing for Australia. Should anything happen to ‘GI’ between now and selection day, Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan would be the next cabs off the rank.
Wingers: The sidelining of Test stalwarts Brett Morris and Darius Boyd means Australia will again field a relatively young wing combination, which will likely come from last year’s Four Nations squad. Josh Mansour and Sione Mata’utia are the incumbents, while Daniel Tupou also debuted during the tournament and Alex Johnston was a non-playing squad member. Our tip is for Mansour and Johnston to get the nod. The groundswell of support for Pat Richards to win a NSW Origin debut is unlikely to extend to the Test arena, although the veteran did win a premiership under Sheens in 2005.
Centres: Inglis’ secondment to fullback opens the door for Justin Hodges, Michael Jennings, Dylan Walker and Josh Morris to grapple for two spots. Hodges and Walker have spent recent weeks in the injury ward, but the Brisbane captain will be picked if he gets through the next two matches unscathed. Jennings has been in blistering touch and should snare the other berth. Morris is also under a slight injury cloud, so if he, Hodges and Walker were all unavailable, Dane Gagai and Will Chambers would come into the frame.
Halves: Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston will reunite in the halves after the latter sat out the Four Nations. Fellow Queenslanders Daly Cherry-Evans and Ben Hunt are the next in line for selection.
Props: Matthew Scott is a certainty, but fellow Four Nations absentees James Tamou and Andrew Fifita are at long odds to return. Aaron Woods deserves to keep his spot, but David Klemmer’s suspension won’t have helped his chances of retention. Josh Papalii partnered Woods in the starting side in last year’s final. With Paul Gallen, Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday all likely inclusions, expect one of them to form part of the four-prop rotation.
Hooker: Cameron Smith will captain his country for the 20th time. Robbie Farah and James Segeyaro are the next best available.
Backrowers: Thaiday, Parker and Greg Bird are the starting incumbents, while Boyd Cordner and Josh Jackson came off the bench. Gallen, Ryan Hoffman, Matt Gillett, Luke Lewis, Glenn Stewart and Beau Scott are in the frame, but Aidan Guerra’s broken jaw has ruled him out of contention.
Bench utility: Hunt filled the role in last year’s final and arguably has the edge in versatility over Cherry-Evans, who is struggling for form, and Farah. Kurt Gidley, the most versatile of the lot but on the verge of 33, has incredibly rocketed into the mix after getting a ringing endorsement from coach Tim Sheens. If centre cover is lacking amongst the forwards chosen, Gidley may grab a re-call.
COMMENTARY BOX SPORTS’ KANGAROOS LINE-UP: Inglis, Mansour, Hodges, Jennings, Johnston, Thurston, Cronk, Scott, Smith (c), Woods, Bird, Parker, Gallen. Interchange: Hunt, Thaiday, Cordner, Jackson.
Fullback: Peta Hiku was one of the heroes of last year’s Four Nations campaign, but playing wing and centre in a struggling Manly outfit hasn’t helped his cause – and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s scintillating form in the Roosters’ No.1 will be difficult to resist. Josh Hoffman is at long odds to add to his five Test appearances.
Wingers: Veteran incumbents Manu Vatuvei and Jason Nightingale will be hard to unseat after both produced stellar Four Nations campaigns. Tuivasa-Sheck or Hiku – whoever misses the fullback boat – will be strong contenders, while Gerard Beale featured during last year’s tournament, and Sosaia Feki and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak were non-playing squad members.
Centres: Dean Whare and Shaun Kenny-Dowall are the incumbents and should be retained, although Whare is racing the clock to overcome a hamstring injury. Beale and World Cup regular Bryson Goodwin are potential replacements, while Konrad Hurrell could shoulder his way in for a debut with a couple of barnstorming performances for the Warriors.
Halves: Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson will be the first players picked, but 25-Test veteran Benji Marshall would be a worthy replacement if required.
Props: New Zealand’s front-row stocks are brimming. Jesse Bromwich is assured of selection, but Adam Blair will miss out unless he can return from injury for Brisbane this week or next. Ben Matulino, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam McKendry and Sam Moa all sat out the Four Nations, with Matulino certain to snare a place after a rollicking start to the season. Martin Taupau, who has been starring at lock for the Tigers, should retain a place in the 17. Sam Kasiano’s recent suspension has thwarted his compelling case for a re-call. Four Nations squad member Suaia Matagi hasn’t been able to crack it for a first grade spot at the Warriors this year.
Hooker: Issac Luke has been in sizzling form for Souths and will play his 31st Test. Warriors pair Ben Henry and Siliva Havili shared the dummy-half duties for the depleted Kiwis in the corresponding clash last year, but current Warriors No.9 Thomas Leuluai is next in line after Luke.
Backrowers: Captain Simon Mannering, Kevin Proctor and Jason Taumololo are the incumbents and all three are certain selections in an area of insane depth for the Kiwis. Tohu Harris, who has been dominant so far this year, and Greg Eastwood were on the bench in last year’s final and should retain their spots. But Elijah Taylor, Alex Glenn, Bodene Thompson and Manu Ma’u would all be worthy inclusions.
Bench utility: Lewis Brown was superb in the role during the Four Nations, with the specialist backrower’s ability to cover hooker and centre likely to quell any temptation to pick a four-forward bench. Leuluai, a veteran of 31 Tests, is another viable, versatile option.
COMMENTARY BOX SPORTS’ KIWIS LINE-UP: Tuivasa-Sheck, Vatuvei, Whare, Kenny-Dowall, Nightingale, Foran, Johnson, Bromwich, Luke, Matulino, Mannering (c), Proctor, Taumololo. Interchange: Brown, Taupau, Eastwood, Harris.