As we settle into the Michael Maguire era of Aotearoa Kiwis footy, the coming fixtures led by Friday night's game vs Australia could offer a wee bit more clarity around what to expect from the Kiwis. This time last year, Aotearoa were too good for Australia before a trip to England that offered encouragement and a dose of reality packaged together. Then came a strong performance against Tonga earlier this year and I'm left to ponder what this Kiwis team is all about.
By that, I mean where they sit in their journey under Maguire and how we should be ranking them against the likes of Australia and England/Great Britain. What I know for certain, is that Maguire is building a wider group of players who can slot in and do a job for Aotearoa depending on who is available for selection. Starting with the World Cup 9s, Maguire eased lads like Reimis Smith, Dylan Brown, Jeremy Marshall-King and Bailey Simonsson into the Kiwis equation; there was a focus on winning the 9s, combined with assembling that wider Kiwis group.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad serves as a nifty example as well, considering he spent the bulk of World Cup 9s playing at left centre. Nicoll-Klokstad had withdrawn from the Cook Islands campaign, but when Maguire came calling with regards to the big dawg Kiwis squad, Nicoll-Klokstad opted to play the 9s for Aotearoa. Nicoll-Klokstad alluded to getting into Kiwis camp as being a factor in playing the 9s, which I believe came from Maguire telling Nicoll-Klokstad that he would be playing left centre for Aotearoa and that preparation would start with the 9s.
Maguire would have known about Esan Marsters' availability - I still think that's a weird situation between Maguire and Marsters but not convinced of any dramas. With Marsters out, Maguire needed a left centre and while many may be surprised that Maguire has plucked Nicoll-Klokstad out of the pack to play centre, it's fairly logical. First and foremost, Nicoll-Klokstad has a history of playing centre as a youngster coming through the Melbourne Storm system and then he cracked the 2016 Intrust Super Cup (Canterbury Cup) Team of the Year at centre.
There is also the connection between Maguire and Melbourne Storm that would have Maguire well aware of Nicoll-Klokstad's abilities. Maguire worked with Melbourne Storm, although well before Nicoll-Klokstad started playing SG Ball (under 18) with Storm but Maguire has a relationship with Craig Bellamy from their days at Canberra Raiders and then the Storm. I definitely believe that Maguire would have done a decent amount of research around the idea of Nicoll-Klokstad playing centre and now Maguire has ensured that Nicoll-Klokstad is in the best space possible by giving him that time at left centre in the 9s.
Peep some strong defensive reads and contact:
As for other centre options, it may look like Aotearoa is short on depth here. With Joseph Manu, Marsters and Nicoll-Klokstad there are three primary options, while Dean Whare is always in the mix if he can rack up consistent NRL games and Peta Hiku is always lurking. Bulldogs duo Reimis Smith and Morgan Harper are both capable centres as well; Harper is more of a straight up centre who can dabble in wing while Smith feels the opposite.
There isn't any shortage in the lower ranks either as Jackson Ferris (Sharks), Mawene Hiroti (Rabbitohs), Steven Marsters (Rabbitohs), Jaxson Paulo (Rabbitohs), Kayal Iro (Warriors) and Patrick Herbert (Warriors) are all slowly working into NRL footy. This should serve as assurance that Aotearoa's centre depth is all good at the highest level, as well as the wave coming through to bolster the group in a year or two.
Not only did Maguire integrate the likes of Smith, Brown, Marshall-King and Simonsson in playing the 9s, Starford To'a was also part of the squad. To'a appears to be present in this Kiwis camp as well, along with Isaiah Papali'i who did the same last year. Maguire has also ensured that Kieran Foran is around the group as much as possible, which is equally as crafty just with a different style to the younger lads.
To further reinforce this idea of Maguire build a hearty group of Kiwis, we have to be aware of the players who are unavailable for these spring internationals. Marsters is out, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak's absence opens a spot up for Jamayne Isaako to start on the wing and Simonsson coming in for depth. No Jesse Bromwich means Leeson Ah Mau can start and along with James Fisher-Harris being out, there is space to bring in Zane Tetevano and Braden Hamlin-Uele on to the bench for this game vs Australia.
Joseph Tapine is in the squad but out for this game, meaning that Aotearoa is without Jesse Bromwich, Fisher-Harris and Tapine; all of whom are in my top-17. Let's not forget Nelson Asofa-Solomona who got scratched out and that's three of Aotearoa's best forwards who aren't in this squad, four including Tapine who aren't playing in this game. This has me cautious about the Kiwis through the middle as Bromwich is a proven international and Aotearoa looks a tad different when Bromwich and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves starting, while Asofa-Solomona, Fisher-Harris etc come off the bench.
This offers the intrigue about where the Kiwis currently sit as the bench is straight up, a second tier trio of middle forwards with Zane Tetevano, Braden Hamlin-Uele and Corey Harawira-Naera. These three all deserve their crack and it's lovely that Aotearoa can absorb those notable absences with eager young forwards, yet I'm interested in whether the Kiwis can compete with Australia through the middle lacking their best line up. This is the nature of international footy and having depth is crucial, so whether the Kiwis system and culture is strong enough to compete/defeat Australia in this scenario will tell us a lot about Maguire's Kiwis.
Hence Adam Blair is named to start in the middle. Perhaps in a full strength team, Blair is unable to find a spot but with various players out and a bench that has has three debutants, Blair's value increases.
The greatest strength of this Kiwis outfit is their play-making. With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at fullback, Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall in the halves and Brandon Smith at hooker, there is a level of skill, experience and class that Aotearoa has rarely enjoyed. I'm most interested in Tuivasa-Sheck's involvement from fullback and what trends emerge in where he operates in attack. I'm not overly excited with how Tuivasa-Sheck is used at the Warriors and Tuivasa-Sheck is still the best player at the Warriors by quite some margin, so playing with better players and perhaps a better coach may have Tuivasa-Sheck popping up in different spots.
That's the opportunity presented to Tuivasa-Sheck, Johnson and Smith especially. Only the best players play international footy and while many make their judgements based on NRL footy, international footy offers a chance to build legacy, to boost status. Tuivasa-Sheck and Johnson could start to hit a nek level with dominant performances for Aotearoa, while Smith is slowly building an impressive collection of performances at hooker for Aotearoa - despite being a middle forward for Melbourne Storm.
Aotearoa will need their play-makers to control the flow vs Australia, as well as offering the sublime to grab a win vs Australia. The forward pack doesn't fill me with optimism in coming up against the Kangaroos pack, but if the forwards can stay in the contest and give the play-makers a chance, then there is more than enough funk to trouble the Aussies.
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Peace and love 27.