2018 was an intriguing year for Aotearoa Kiwis footy as new coach Michael Maguire got the Kiwis back on track, with a few impressive wins and a niggly trip to England. The results were only one layer of the funk though as a wave of new players was brought into the Kiwis set up, along with more experienced players refreshed with Maguire's arrival. This years's Kiwis squads will continue to balance the development of a younger tier, with rolling out the best possible group and now is a nice time to see the lay of the land.
There is an important idea to throw up first however; the time has come for an Aotearoa 'A' type of team or system established. The depth is present to have two tiers of Aotearoa Kiwis and to ensure that the best development pathway to the Kiwis, there needs to be a level between Junior Kiwis and Kiwis. We saw some of this with Maguire's squads last year as players were selected for the squad and didn't end up playing, benefiting from tasting the environment and culture.
One of those players was Jahrome Hughes and I've got Hughes as being someone who could make their debut this year. Hughes has been fantastic for Melbourne Storm after having the stars align for him to play fullback with Scott Drinkwater suffering a long-term injury. Despite not being the biggest fullback, Hughes is 2nd in average run metres for fullbacks and is averaging 10.61m/run; for context Roger Tuivasa-Sheck averages 11.20m/run.
The fact that Hughes is even in the same realm as Tuivasa-Sheck is bonkers given their size difference, which speaks to Hughes' speed and nimble running. Hughes also averages 3.2 tackle busts which is good enough to have him 6th for fullbacks and he's almost averaging a try assist every game (0.8).
A Harbour City Eagles junior (Wellington), Hughes has consistently looked at ease in the NRL and his slick work in the halves, or at fullback last season saw him earn Kiwis squad selection for the tour to England. The fullback ranks are currently jam-packed though as Tuivasa-Sheck is back in action, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak has recently shifted from wing to fullback for Penrith Panthers and then we have Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad exploding on to the scene with Canberra Raiders.
Nicoll-Klokstad is averaging 18runs/150m, with 3 tackle busts and while he doesn't quite have the running numbers like Hughes, Nicoll-Klokstad is averaging 1.8 offloads (Hughes averages 0.2 offloads). This has Nicoll-Klokstad deep in contention for a Kiwis call up, at the very least to any squad Maguire selects and there is no reason why Nicoll-Klokstad and Hughes can't be in a Kiwis squad along with Tuivasa-Sheck and Watene-Zelezniak.
That isn't to say that Hughes and Nicoll-Klokstad should be playing ahead of Tuivasa-Sheck or Watene-Zelezniak, they definitely deserve to be in the squads. The depth in wingers is fabulous as well, even if Jamayne Isaako has had a minor dip in form among the Brisbane Broncos struggles; Isaako, Watene-Zelezniak, Ken Maumalo, Jordan Rapana and Reimis Smith are all in the mix.
Smith (Bulldogs) is the interesting joker here, just a bit below the Hughes/Nicoll-Klokstad level. Smith isn't quite commanding selection like those two, although selection in any Kiwis squads this year would be wise under the developmental umbrella.
The emergence of Dylan Brown with Parramatta Eels was an exciting wrinkle to start the season, yet he and Kieran Foran have been suffered mid-long term injuries. This will most likely see Shaun Johnson again partnered with Kodi Nikorima and it would take something monumentally stink to see Nikorima drop out, now that Brown and Foran are out of action.
If Chanel Harris-Tavita can rack up games for Aotearoa Warriors, then he could come in for development opportunities and the new wave will be on show if Brown and Harris-Tavita are selected in a wider squad. Harris-Tavita may also have a decision to make between Tonga and Aotearoa, greater immediate opportunities for Tonga could see Harris-Tavita slide down that route this year.
The major names I want to bring up in the forwards discussion are Briton Nikora and Marata Niukore, who has started the season strongly with Cronulla Sharks and Parramatta Eels. Everyone loves to talk about Corey Harawira-Naera (Bulldogs) in the young edge forward discussion and he was unlucky to miss out on the Kiwis tour to England last year, but Harawira-Naera is in hot contention with the rise of Nikora and Niukore this year.
Nikora is 6th in average run metres and 5th in tackle busts, averaging 10.25m/run, as well as averaging 1 line break, 2.8 tackle busts and 1 offload.
Niukore is averaging 9.47m/run and isn't too far behind Nikora in tackle busts, 7th with 2.4 tackle busts/game.
Both Nikora and Niukore are playing right edge for their respective teams and last year in England, Isaac Liu spent a lot of time playing right edge. This seasons, Liu is primarily playing through the middle for the Roosters and I view that as his best position, opening the door for a young edge forward to get game time this year. At they very least, Nikora, Niukore and Harawira-Naera should feature in various Kiwis squads this year and over the course of the season, one will emerge as the leader of the pack.
Finally, I've got Josh Aloiai who is doing a lovely job for Maguire at Wests Tigers. Aloiai has previously represented Samoa and the Glenora Bears junior is currently averaging more minutes through the middle (44.8min) than Ben Matulino and Russell Packer (both 33.4). Aloiai has the mobility/power combo that is so attractive in the NRL and the fact that he is enjoying plenty of faith from the Kiwis coach, can't be overlooked.
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Peace and love 27.