Spring Internationals: After The Rain...

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Aotearoa Kiwis put up 34 points and conceded nada in their third Test vs England, capping off a weird ol' tour that should be considered just another few steps forward. A few steps further away from the horror of the World Cup and a few steps into a brighter future for not only the Kiwis, but all of this is coinciding with some interesting moves being made to bump up the growth of international rugby league.

In reflecting on the 34-0 drubbing in the last Test of the spring international window, I refuse to get too caught up in the hype around the Kiwis. To isolate the third Test and celebrate it has a hefty moment for Kiwis rugby league, is to do what most sports fans do when either the Kiwis or Aotearoa Warriors win/lose; go straight to the extremes.

Sure, the dominance in the last Test does drag the overall vibe of this tour up, although after two fairly solid outings prior that resulted in narrow losses, the Kiwis didn't have far to drag the good vibes. Those first two Tests were definitely solid, the nuance of international footy smacked a new Kiwis group in the face and they weren't quite good enough. While everything about the Kiwis in the third Test was delightful, the reality was and still is that the Kiwis lost the series in the first two Tests and that England didn't come close to rolling out a similar performance, partly thanks to a few team changes from coach Wayne Bennett.

It's the balance of celebrating a Kiwis win and keeping those celebrations in check.

It's the understanding that when the Kiwis lose by 2 points, or a converted try as they did in the first two Tests, that they actually were rather solid. Obviously they lost and didn't play their best, however in such loss there's no need to blame an individual or bemoan aspects of the team's play and understand the situation the Kiwis are in, as well as their opponents. That understanding allows you not to get too negative on the two losses and then, not go too crazy about winning a dead-rubber.

The tour was, and the overall vibe of the Kiwis now is fantastic. Don't let my neutral, sensible perspective on the results fool you into thinking that I'm all a bit ho-hum about the Kiwis. What we have seen in 2018 is that the Kiwis are on the right track and they are walking, upright, chest out, heads up down this path that leaves the previous World Cup in the distance and winds its way to a brighter future.

Michael Maguire has done brilliantly in bringing the Kiwis together this year, with the energy and appreciation for Kiwis footy evident in the players throughout the five games played. The mix of veterans and fresh faces has been the highlight in 2018, especially considering that the fresh faces drew much of the attention, clouding over the returns of Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor, along with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves going a long way to establishing himself in this Kiwis group.

Kodi Nikorima has played a fair amount of international footy in recent years, although we haven't been graced with Nikorima/Shaun Johnson halves combo consistently. These two played four Tests together, while Nikorima was partnered by Te Maire Martin in Denver and I'd strongly suggest that Nikorima and Johnson spending that much time together, has been the most important aspect of the spring internationals.

We have also witnessed the rise of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. There are a bunch of these type of yarns in this 2018 Kiwis narrative, where a player genuinely flourished in the new environment and Watene-Zelezniak's arc is perhaps the most telling. Consider that Watene-Zelezniak was a sometimes Kiwis winger, depending on who was available and what the coach ate for breakfast, prior to 2018. A young squad member trying to find his way at international level, trying to tap into his potential.

Come 2018 and Watene-Zelezniak initially benefited from a season-ending injury to Penrith Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards, then Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's absence for the Denver Test. Watene-Zelezniak impressed Maguire in that period of time to the point where Maguire felt compelled to make Watene-Zelezniak the skipper and now my everlasting memory of 2018 is the great-grandson of Steve Watene leading the Kiwis haka.

Watene-Zelezniak now encapsulates the rise of the Kiwis in 2018. No one reflects the progression better than Watene-Zelezniak, yet no matter how hard we try to stay present and enjoy this lovely dude's ascension, we've all got Tuivasa-Sheck lurking in the back of our minds. This points to the absence of a group of Aotearoa's finest, that didn't play a single game for Aotearoa this year and/or featured sporadically.

Tuivasa-Sheck and Tohu Harris are undisputedly in Aotearoa's best 17, neither played a game for Aotearoa this year. Are we sure that Dean Whare is going to command selection ahead of Joseph Manu or Esan Marsters moving forward? I dunno, but Whare wasn't sighted for the Kiwis in 2018 either. Need we remember who that Kieran Foran guy is?

Nelson Asofa-Solomona wasn't in the spring international squad. Joseph Tapine barely featured over in England. Te Maire Martin wasn't required for Kiwis footy after the Denver Test. Issac Luke might want his hooking spot back as well. Agnatius Paasi, Peta Hiku, Jahrome Hughes and Gerard Beale were all in the spring squad, but didn't play.

The nature of international footy means that the stars need to align for us to be graced with an ultimate full strength Kiwis team and the most important thing now is to build a pool of players that can perform, absorbing the mandatory absences. The pool of players we have right now, is frothing with enthusiasm for Kiwis footy and the depth is such, after 2018's international calendar, that players are genuinely competing with each other for spots.

We have never experienced this before.

As Kiwis fans, we're used to odd selections based purely on a lack of depth. Selection was all about who is available and less about who is more deserving, which we will probably never experience again as the #KiwiNRL takeover continues. 2018 saw Jamayne Isaako, Esan Marsters, Joseph Manu, Ken Maumalo, Brandon Smith, Leeson Ah Mau, Herman Ese'ese, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Slade Griffin and Isaiah Papali'i slide into Kiwis footy with varying degrees of contributions. Hughes and Paasi didn't play for the Kiwis, but they are there, in the mix, hunting for a debut. Guys like Isaac Liu and Kenny Bromwich found a cheeky niche in the Kiwis after flirting with selection, performing their roles admirably under coach Maguire.

Injecting such a wave of fresh faces into the Kiwis is always going to bring growing pains and to be honest, the Kiwis could have lost every game and I'd be all good because of the short term pain for long term gain. Instead, we had the fresh faces and veterans come together to form a Kiwis team that had a tangible passion in representing Aotearoa. A team culture was quickly established by Maguire and the vets, invigorated by the new wave and this was all evident in losses, let alone wins.

2018 will be remembered as the year in which Kiwis rugby league found itself and laid the foundations for growth. Growth that has been crystal clear in the #KiwiNRL takeover and after the 2018 Kiwis experience, kiwis around Aotearoa can enjoy their summer knowing that the Aotearoa Kiwis are where they should be in matching rugby league's growth in Aotearoa.

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Peace and love 27.