2019 Spring Internationals: Aotearoa Kiwis Squad

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Aotearoa Kiwis have a squad for their upcoming spring internationals where they will face Australia, then the touring Great Britain folk. There is also an Aotearoa Nines squad, which doesn't interest me a great deal but from my viewpoint, there is clarity in the selections for the Nines squad as coach Michael Maguire appears to be using the Nines squad as an entry point into the Aotearoa Kiwis whanau.

The likes of Dylan Brown, Jeremy Marshall-King, Bailey Simonsson and Reimis Smith are all players who will benefit from being involved in the Kiwis vibes as they are all possibilities to graduate to proper Kiwis footy. While Aotearoa went from Under 20s Junior Kiwis to Under 19s, Australia has shifted their Junior Kiwis from Under 20s to Under 23 and their Junior Kangaroos squad features established NRL players who are eligible. On top of that, Australia has their Prime Minster's team that recently played Fiji and along with their junior rep teams that gives Mal Meninga some delightful pipelines of development to the Kangaroos.

Aotearoa on the other hand doesn't quite have that luxury, hence bringing players through a Nines squad while still fitting the style of play in Nines footy, is a nifty move from Maguire. Most of Maguire's changes to the Kiwis squad that faced Tonga earlier this year are forced via injury/availability and the depth of #KiwiNRL talent allows for those absences to be absorbed by emerging talent. From the previous Kiwis team, Esan Marsters, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jesse Bromwich and James Fisher-Harris are all absent; all of whom have serious cases to feature in any Kiwis top-17.

Players who have been selected from outside the previous team are: Braden Hamlin-Uele, Corey Harawira-Naera, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jamayne Isaako and Zane Tetevano. Tetevano was named in the squad for the Tongan Test but didn't play, while Harawira-Naera was named in last year's initial squad for the spring internationals but withdrew from selection. Despite headlines suggesting that Isaako had followed Martin Taupau in starting a Samoan revolution when Isaako was named in Samoa's squad mid-season, I never really got that vibe and it felt more like a case of Isaako being surplus to requirements.

That's especially the case when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak made such an impression as captain last year and with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck playing fullback, Watene-Zelezniak operated as a winger vs Tonga. Now there's no Watene-Zelezniak and/or Jordan Rapana, providing Isaako with an opportunity on the wing along with Ken Maumalo.

The selection of Nicoll-Klokstad will likely see him play centre due to the presence of Tuivasa-Sheck. That would be an intriguing move from Maguire as Nicoll-Klokstad has the ability to play centre, although reppin' Aotearoa at centre is nek level and would challenge Nicoll-Klokstad. Looking at the options available, perhaps Kieran Foran or Benji Marshall could pop into centre, maybe Briton Nikora or Kenny Bromwich. Nicoll-Klokstad is the safest possibility, but no rocking with a specialist centre other than Joseph Manu is the funkiest move from Maguire in selecting this squad.

Keep in mind that Esan Marsters has recently left Wests Tigers for North Queensland Cowboys. I believe Marsters is unavailable due to injury, not because of dramas with his former Tigers coach Maguire, yet this narrative was mentioned a few weeks ago and since then Marsters has left the Tigers and missed out on Kiwis selection. That is most likely coincidental and I don't think there are major issues that will hold Marsters back from further Kiwis footy under Maguire.

Based on 2019 form, Kodi Nikorima is understandably absent. Nikorima is caught in a wee no-man's-land where he should be thriving in the NRL as his career rolls on, although that hasn't been the case and Nikorima has hit a plateau. That's an issue for Nikorima because Dylan Brown (only named in Nines squad) and Jahrome Hughes are coming into the Kiwis halves equation, then at the top of the rankings sit Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran and Benji Marshall; all of whom are among the best halves Aotearoa has had.

Against Tonga, Maguire selected Hughes, Johnson, Foran and Marshall. Maguire split this by starting Johnson and Marshall in the halves, while Hughes came off the bench to play hooker and Foran was 18th/19th man. There are three internationals, so expect to see different combinations to be rolled out and my vibe is that Johnson will be partnered with either Foran or Marshall.

Saviour this folks because not too long ago it looked like we would never get to see Johnson, Foran and Marshall together in the Kiwis bucket. Foran has perservered through his issues and has come out the other side, while Marshall's form in recent years reminds me of Ross Taylor who has hit a whole new level of world-class batting as he gets older. After a few rough years, the stars have aligned for us to be graced with the Johnson/Foran/Marshall trio for a few more games at least.

My most exciting selection other than Nicoll-Klokstad possibly doing a job at centre is Braden Hamlin-Uele. The likes of Tetevano, Harawira-Naera and Kevin Proctor will be competing for bench spots, yet I am fizzing to see Hamlin-Uele come off the bench alongside Nelson Asofa-Solomona (assuming his latest scrap doesn't de-rail anything) and Joseph Tapine. Having Asofa-Solomona, Tapine and Hamlin-Uele together would give kiwis a glimpse at the young talent coming through the NRL and all three are excessively big, powerful and mobile.

Maguire picked Kenny Bromwich and Briton Nikora as the edge forwards mid-season and there isn't much reason to change that. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Isaac Liu, Leeson Ah Mau, Asofa-Solomona and Tapine should all be in the top-17, leaving Tetevano, Harawira-Naera and Proctor on the outer. Tetevano offers middle depth, Harawira-Naera can dabble in middle but he and Proctor are primarily there as edge forwards.

Here is my Kiwis 17 from the squad named...

Fullback: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

Wings: Ken Maumalo, Jamayne Isaako.

Centres: Joseph Manu, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.

Halves: Shaun Johnson, Benji Marshall.

Middles: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Isaac Liu, Leeson Ah Mau.

Hooker: Brandon Smith.

Edges: Kenny Bromwich, Briton Nikora.

Bench: Jahrome Hughes, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Joseph Tapine, Braden Hamlin-Uele.

Surplus: Kieran Foran, Corey Harawira-Naera, Kevin Proctor, Zane Tetevano.

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