Rugby League Columnist and Author Will Evans questions the thinking of the Kiwis as they embark on their tour of England minus a whole heap of world-beating talent.
Last year Australia treated the Four Nations tournament with disdain.
Test incumbents Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Billy Slater, Brett Morris, Josh Morris, Matt Gillett and James Tamou all pulled out of the selection pool – despite seeing out the NRL season with their respective clubs, and despite the unavailability of Paul Gallen, Nate Myles and Darius Boyd.
The Kangaroos deservedly had their pants pulled down, with a vastly inexperienced green-and-golds line-up on the end of two comprehensive losses at the hands of a brutal, brilliant Kiwis outfit inspired by Shaun Johnson’s Golden Boot-winning form.
It was hailed as a triumph for the long-neglected sphere of international rugby league. New Zealand’s drought-breaking Anzac Test victory in Brisbane in May – after the Kangaroos’ cavalry had returned – clinched the world No.1 ranking and gave Test footy another shot in the arm. Only then, after a third straight drubbing and their long-undisputed supremacy threatened, did Australia’s ‘burnt out’ superstars lament the absence of any Tests from the 2015 post-season schedule.
But the Kiwis are heading down a disturbingly similar path ahead of their tour of England.
Already without the services of stalwarts Johnson, Manu Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who all suffered season-ending injuries playing for their clubs, coach Stephen Kearney will jet off the Britain with a squad that does not contain vice-captain Kieran Foran and skipper Simon Mannering.
Foran pulled out last week with an elbow injury he has been battling since Round 12, while Mannering withdrew this week courtesy of an ongoing gastric problem.
North Queensland premiership hero Jason Taumalolo – another guaranteed Test 17 inclusion – indicated after the grand final that he is battling a knee problem and may not tour, although he was named in the 23-man squad on Thursday. Injuries and illness happen, and few could doubt the iron-man qualities of Foran and Mannering, but the absences have emphasised the gulf in importance placed on international rugby league compared to the NRL competition (or State of Origin, for that matter).
An increasingly weakened Kiwis touring squad is another body-blow for Test league, following hot on the heels of the NRL’s announcement of a new television rights deal. From 2018, international matches will be given a ‘new priority’ with a ‘dedicated window’ after the premiership has concluded. No more Anzac Tests after 2017. In other words, the NRL considers Test footy an annoying inconvenience and have crammed it in at the end of the year, where it can’t hurt the competition and players can withdraw en masse (besides perhaps in World Cup year) without having to miraculously recover from an injury and turn out for their club the following weekend.
It was a kick in the groin for any purist that regards Tests as the pinnacle of the game.
State of Origin, the NRL’s behemoth cash cow, was unsurprisingly left relatively untouched, with two matches remaining in the traditional midweek timeslot and the other to be played on a standalone weekend. The NZRL was blindsided by the announcement, apparently not advised beforehand in yet another act of arrogance from the NRL. It was a setback for the credibility and the coffers of the NZRL, an organisation that struggles for cash flow at the best of times.
Another disappointing aspect of the stream of withdrawals is that New Zealand has a big point to prove in England. Before the Johnson-led escape in the classic semi-final thriller at Wembley in 2013, the Kiwis had lost six straight Tests against Great Britain and England in the Old Dart.
The three-Test series – scheduled following a typically apathetic Australia’s decision to pull the pin on England’s tour Down Under – is a wonderful and timely revival. It’s the first diversion from one-off Tests and tournament-style international football since the Kiwis’ ill-fated 2007 tour of England (the Kangaroos haven’t bothered since 2003).
Compounding the injury absentees and growing disinterest in the tour is Kearney’s bizarre reluctance to recall Benji Marshall – even with Foran, Johnson and Leuluai on the sidelines.
Tuimoala Lolohea and Kodi Nikorima loom as a debutant Test halves pairing; the first grade rookies are exciting talents destined to wear the black and white jumper many times, but Warriors utility-back Lolohea boasts just six NRL starts in the halves, while Nikorima has played exclusively as an interchange dummy-half in the top flight for the Broncos.
Marshall was the Kiwis’ linchpin in the Kearney-coached 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four Nations triumphs, skippering the latter on his way to the Golden Boot. The snubbing is baffling to say the least.
This isn’t the Benji of 2013 that had the Test captaincy stripped from him and left Wests Tigers a shadow of his former self. He enjoyed a spectacular renaissance with St George Illawarra this year, finishing equal-second in the Dally M Medal count. He’s the obvious choice, yet couldn’t even get a spot in a train-on squad that included Te Maire Martin, a Penrith-bound Junior Kiwis incumbent yet to play in the NRL.
On a positive note, the Kiwis will still field an experienced and star-studded line-up – with the glaring exception of the halves – as New Zealand’s unprecedented depth comes to the rescue. There is unlikely to be room in the Test line-up for uncapped newcomers such as Siosiua Taukeiaho, Isaac Liu, Curtis Rona and Jordan Kahu, or seasoned internationals Alex Glenn and Gerard Beale.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be there. Jesse Bromwich, too. Issac Luke and the resurrected Adam Blair have been named as co-captains. Perhaps Kearney’s under-strength crew will return triumphant with the Baskerville Trophy to sit alongside the Four Nations and Billy Kelly Cup silverware. But after the enormous progress made by the Kiwis in the past 12 months – and the tentative rise of international rugby league beginning with the 2013 World Cup – it’s disappointing to see some of our highest-profile players opt out of a tour of this magnitude, when they obviously would have been available for an finals campaign or a World Cup.
Taking the Kangaroos’ well-worn self-preservation route when New Zealand has a rare chance to cement its place at the top of the world rugby league tree is an ordinary look. Especially as the Rugby World Cup (however questionable the quality of the spectacle has been at times) provides a simultaneous reminder of where the 13-a-side code should be aspiring to internationally.
POSSIBLE KIWIS TEST LINE-UP: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Jason Nightingale, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Dean Whare, Peta Hiku, Tuimoala Lolohea, Kodi Nikorima, Jesse Bromwich, Issac Luke (c), Ben Matulino, Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris, Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: Lewis Brown, Martin Taupau, Adam Blair, Sam Moa.
KIWIS 23-MAN SQUAD TO TOUR ENGLAND: Gerard Beale (Sharks), Adam Blair (Broncos), Jesse Bromwich (Storm), Lewis Brown (Panthers), Alex Glenn (Broncos), Tohu Harris (Storm), Peta Hiku (Sea Eagles), Jordan Kahu (Broncos), Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Roosters), Isaac Liu (Roosters), Tuimoala Lolohea (Warriors), Issac Luke (Rabbitohs), Ben Matulino (Warriors), Sam Moa (Roosters), Jason Nightingale (Dragons), Kodi Nikorima (Broncos), Kevin Proctor (Storm), Curtis Rona (Bulldogs), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Roosters), Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys), Martin Taupau (Wests Tigers), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Roosters), Dean Whare (Panthers).