Everything about following the #KiwiNRL with the World Cup in mind has been funky. We've got a stockpile of wingers competing for spots, we have two young halves starting each week in Kodi Nikorima and Te Maire Martin to put pressure on the Warriors duo who didn't impress in the Anzac Test, then despite flicking Jesse Bromwich out of the mix, we've still got options to combine with Adam Blair, Jason Taumalolo and Martin Taupau.
Middle options who are in-form and offer grizzly experience, led by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. Along with middle options who should have kiwis fizzing with anticipation, led by Nelson Asofa-Solomona. There's different avenues for David Kidwell to go down and as Kidwell hasn't really earned any confidence, I'm more intrigued by Kidwell's decisions.
I've covered those positional conundrums over the course of the season and I'm coming back around to the edge forwards. As we know, Kevin Proctor was flicked out of the mixer with Bromwich and such is the depth of #KiwiNRL that the absence of Bromwich and Proctor can be absorbed.
The presence of Taumalolo at lock will likely result in Simon Mannering sliding over to the right edge, in a straight swap for Proctor. Mannering has filled in on the right edge for brief moments this season for the Warriors and Stephen Kearney's arrival as coach at Mt Smart has seen Mannering ramp up his ball-playing. Throughout the season we have seen Mannering fling passes left and right as a link-man, which when combined with solid carries and 40 tackles each week is bonkers. That's why it was weird when Mannering threw a few slightly crappy passes to Mason Lino against Cronulla as he's been putting those in the bread-basket all season.
I highlight Mannering's ball-playing because that will give the Kiwis a bit of spice on the right edge, spice that wasn't there with Proctor. Mannering's just a more skillful player and with Shaun Johnson making a return, the chemistry between Mannering and Johnson on Aotearoa's right edge will also be a plus.
On the left we have a situation, a glorious situation. Besides Parramatta Eels fans, you'll struggle to find a bigger fan of Manu Ma'u than myself and the energy, aggression, plus some low key subtle skill, that Ma'u plays with is perfectly suited to international footy. Ma'u has been playing left edge for Parramatta consistently and averages 13.3 carries/116.1m a game, yet the return of Tohu Harris for Melbourne Storm's run into the Finals throws a little spanner in the works.
Harris plays left edge as well, although in 2017 he has battled injury after injury and hasn't played enough footy to demand a starting left edge spot. Craig Bellamy could move Harris into the starting line up from the bench in a last-minute change as Bellamy likes to do, although Joe Stimson has been doing a solid job on the left in Harris' absence and Harris is likely to hold down a bench spot as the season winds up.
I'm of the view that Harris has to be in Aotearoa's top-17, so combine that with his ability to play middle or edge and Harris will be a near-certain selection. Both Ma'u and Mannering can play 80 minutes, so there might not be an opening to roll Harris through an edge spot, making his footwork, offloading and defensive effort crucial in giving him middle-minutes. That's even more important when you consider what Taumalolo, Taupau and Asofa-Solomona offer (beastly shit) and that needs to be balanced out by slightly more defensive middle forwards like Blair and perhaps Harris.
In a perfect world, I'd have Taumalolo at lock, Mannering on the right, Ma'u on the left and Harris on the bench. The depth is lovely though as Alex Glenn is in fantastic form for Brisbane Broncos and guess what - he's playing left edge. Glenn is next in line to snap up one of those edge spots, he's also snuck into the middle sporadically for Brisbane this season and surprised me with his power and aggression.
Glenn's work for Brisbane is such that he could command a bench spot, I'll get on to that in a jiffy. Things get even funkier with Ricky Stuart moving Joseph Tapine to the right edge over the past month, moving Elliott Whitehead into the middle. I prefer Tapine as an edge forward as he's bigger than most edge forwards and his mobility/footwork made him standout through the middle, so put that on an edge where he's one-on-one and Tapine is able to skip to the outside, he's too big to wrap up by one defender and then he'll offload.
Tapine follows Glenn and it's worth highlighting Elijah Taylor who has done whatever job Ivan Cleary wants, including playing on an edge. Taylor would round-off this group and would be part of a World Cup squad, not part of a top-17 though. With Kenny Bromwich also there or thereabouts, the versatility offered by Taylor and Bromwich has them perfectly suited to those squad roles.
Who can overlook Kenny Edwards from Parramatta? He's a niggly character and doesn't strike me as someone who David Kidwell is going to call on for a World Cup, his work for the Eels is dynamic though and if injuries or suspension ravage those ranked ahead of Edwards on the Aotearoa Edge Depth Chart, he'll come into the frame.
Then we move into the prospect bracket where Corey Harawira-Naera and Josh Aloiai lead the pack. Harawira-Naera could be a smokey selection, I think we've got enough depth though and he is still ranked 9th in my Aotearoa Edge Depth Chart, which isn't high enough to get World Cup selection. Aloiai has only recently returned to the NRL for Wests Tigers and could be an intriguing selection option for Samoa.
Regular readers will know that I have toyed with a possible Aotearoa bench all year. Each time I offer a different bench, the changes aren't about me flipping my mind, they just showcase different looks the Kiwis could offer; they can select more experience forwards, they can go young and lively, they can go massive and brutal, they can go slick and skillful.
As this is about edge forwards, I'm intrigued by that more mobile, slightly more skillful look to the bench.
Starters: Waerea-Hargreaves, Luke, Blair, Ma'u, Mannering, Taumalolo.
With Kodi Nikorima on the bench, Taupau will have to be there as well. That leaves two spots up for grabs; Harris and Glenn. Harris and Sio Siua Taukeiaho excites me a whole lot more, Harris and Glenn could be an option.
The funk comes if Nikorima starts in the halves and as Issac Luke is a legit 80-minute hooker, Aotearoa don't need to carry a bench hooker, just someone who could do a job in case of an emergency. Glenn can do that job, allowing for Glenn, Taupau, Harris and Taukeiaho to make up the bench. Asofa-Solomona should be on the bench though and his inclusion on the bench will come at the expense of Glenn or Taukeiaho.
Most importantly, I'm excited by the prospect of Mannering on the right and Ma'u on the left. If Ma'u ain't starting on the left, Harris will start and that's equally as nice. All three contenders are defensively sound and offer some skill, which will crucial as we've seen Aotearoa struggle to pose an attacking threat against Australia in recent outings.
Aotearoa Edge Depth Chart
- Simon Mannering
- Manu Ma'u
- Tohu Harris
- Alex Glenn
- Joseph Tapine
- Kevin Proctor*
- Kenny Bromwich
- Kenny Edwards
- Elijah Taylor
- Corey Harawira-Naerea
- Josh Aloiai
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