After selecting a squad featuring a host of shock omissions and plenty of new talent, it’s crunch time for Mal Meninga and the Kangaroos as they head into Saturday’s historic Test in Perth against a strong Kiwis line-up.
With plenty of question marks hanging over Australia’s Four Nations campaign, we tackle the biggest three ahead of the one-off clash at nib Stadium.
Are the Kangaroos thin in the middle?
Looking towards the 2017 World Cup, Meninga and his selectors made the risky – some might say arrogant – call to leave cast-iron veterans Corey Parker and Paul Gallen, two of Australia’s finest servants in recent years, out of the squad.
Test incumbents James Tamou and Josh McGuire were also overlooked, grand final hero Andrew Fifita was not considered, while the Kangaroos won’t be able to call upon Aaron Woods this weekend with the Tigers captain getting married.
Josh Papalii’s withdrawal on Thursday has also eroded the green-and-golds’ experience, size and power in the middle.
Up against a mammoth New Zealand pack – led by captain Jesse Bromwich, front-row partner Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and lock Jason Taumalolo, with Martin Taupau and Adam Blair coming off the bench – a huge responsibility falls on the shoulders of veteran prop Matt Scott and Bulldogs behemoth David Klemmer.
Trent Merrin is an inspired pick and should start at lock, but front-row bolter Shannon Boyd and Papalii’s replacement Jake Trbojevic are both raw, young bucks unaccustomed to this level of footy – having skipped the traditional step of playing Origin – and both may be required to debut this weekend.
There’s no questioning the class of the Australian forwards, but at this stage is appears to be advantage Kiwis up front, and the Kangaroos may rue their decision to leave out Parker and Gallen, along with the more-experienced Ryan James or even Junior Paulo.
— Manly Sea Eagles (@SeaEagles) October 13, 2016
Will the finals hangover bite?
Burnout prompted a stack of Australian stars to bypass the 2014 Four Nations, while it was also behind the Kangaroos’ blank post-season schedule last year.
But with all except injured players making themselves available this time around, how will Australia’s weary, aging stars cope?
Eleven members of the Kangaroos’ likely 17 on Saturday were involved up until at least week two of the NRL finals. By contrast, 10 of the players David Kidwell has named for the Perth showdown weren’t involved in the finals at all.
The Kiwis went into the 2014 Four Nations opener less encumbered by finals duty (10 finals participants to Australia’s 12) and caught the Kangaroos on the hop, powering to a 30-12 victory in Brisbane after the scores were locked 12-all at halftime.
— FOX SPORTS NRL (@FOXNRLLive) October 13, 2014
Is Australia’s backline glass three-quarters empty?
If there’s one area of the Kangaroos’ supposed first-choice line-up yet to convince the masses, it’s jerseys 2 through 5.
Blake Ferguson, Josh Dugan and Greg Inglis played in the May Test and will retain their spots for this clash, while Valentine Holmes is set to snare a debut after incumbent Semi Radradra’s omission, with 2014 Test rep Josh Mansour also getting married this weekend.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the selection of Holmes – who was brilliant in Cronulla’s grand final win – but the other three are playing out of position in regards to their usual club roles.
Inglis, who belatedly showed a bit of form at fullback towards the end of the regular season, featured at centre only twice for Souths in 2016. Granted, he has stacks of rep experience in the three-quarter line, but he was quiet during Origin this year.
Ferguson played on the wing just four times for the Roosters this year, while his awful series on the flank for NSW was papered over by the break he made in the lead-up to the Blues’ last-minute match-winner in game three.
The most perplexing, however, is persisting with Dugan at centre. Dugan is not a centre, but because he is such a gifted footballer and can’t get past the logjam of outstanding No.1s, Meninga and NSW coach Laurie Daley are obsessed with forging a place for him in their rep line-ups elsewhere.
If that’s the paradigm the coaches are working with, Meninga should have found a spot for James Tedesco somewhere, and Dugan is in for a torrid time is Kiwis debutant Solomone Kata displays the stellar form he produced throughout 2016 for the erratic Warriors.
The Kangaroos’ backline back-up is Justin O’Neill, a quality performer who had a strong debut Origin series but can count himself fortunate to be in this squad.
Maroons teammates Corey Oates and Dane Gagai were unlucky, as was the versatile Jack Bird who played all year at centre for the Sharks. The absence of magnificent Canberra centre pairing Joey Leilua and Jarrod Croker baffled many, though injury niggles may have counted against them.
But the two missing candidates that would have been ideal for this campaign are Will Chambers and Brett Morris – proven Test-level performers with a ton of experience in big games.
— rugbyleaguehub.com (@leaguehubcom) October 12, 2016