We are quickly approaching the first Aotearoa Kiwis appearance of 2019 as the Kiwis host Tonga on June 22 and that means that there is a squad of Kiwis to suss out. As is always the case, NRL form and availability will have a huge impact on the squad and how coach Michael Maguire builds on the foundations from solid 2018 campaign while blending new players into the mix will be funky to watch.
Any time I'm discussing the Kiwis, I want to reinforce the idea that there should be more footy for the tier below Aotearoa Kiwis. We are now at a stage where player numbers are at their highest, aligning with the quality of players who are from Aotearoa and at the very least there should be some type of Aotearoa 'A' camp for those players sniffing around international selection. Even better, there should be some type of inter-Aotearoa fixture or series (Auckland vs Aotearoa etc) during the year for players and the NZRL to benefit from.
All of which should be applied to the women's game as well. Rugby league in Aotearoa is growing swiftly and providing pathways, as well as lucrative growth initiatives within Aotearoa should be a priority. There is no need to take games to other countries when we haven't even got close to exploring all options in Aotearoa and that planning needs to align with the talent and depth now on offer.
The first niggly decision facing coach Maguire will be fullback and captain, with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck likely to step into both roles. Dallin Watene-Zeleznniak has to be viewed as a winger when Tuivasa-Sheck is healthy and even then, the emergence of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Jahrome Hughes complicated Watene-Zelezniak's bid for fullback.
That flows into whether Watene-Zelezniak can win a wing spot and his form for Penrith Panther isn't exactly demanding selection. The same can be said for Jamayne Isaako who lost his spot for a week at Brisbane Broncos but could sneak back into contention with resurgent performance and then Jordan Rapana is steadily battling injuries. My certainty on the wing is Ken Maumalo, then Watene-Zelezniak vs Rapana for the other spot.
Like Nicoll-Klokstad and Hughes, Bulldogs winger Reimis Smith is in the tier below. These three could be brought in for development purposes and would otherwise be in an A squad.
No need to shuffle things at centre as Esan Marsters and Joseph Manu have settled into the weekly grind of NRL footy nicely. Dean Whare has returned to centre for Panthers, although he's not playing at a level high enough to oust the youngsters and while Peta Hiku offers great versatility across the backline, he's not a frontline centre in the Kiwis mix. Gerard Beale and Hiku were in the squad last year and are unlikely to get in for this Test vs Tonga, while Jordan Kahu could win squad selection as a versatile option as well.
In the halves, a lot depends on the health of Shaun Johnson and whether he is available to continue to build on his partnership with Kodi Nikorima. That's the ideal scenario and while Kieran Foran isn't commanding selection, Foran would be a solid option to step in if Johnson can't play. Benji Marshall has all but ruled himself out, while Dylan Brown and Te Maire Martin are both out injured.
Here's my strongest backline...
Wings: Maumalo, Rapana.
Centres: Marsters, Manu.
Halves: Johnson, Nikorima.
The hooking situation will be influenced by how Maguire feels about Issac Luke. I've still got Luke as the best dummy half from Aotearoa and hopefully there has been contact between Luke and Maguire about their vibes. Brandon Smith did a great job starting at hooker last year, although he has barely played hooker for Melbourne Storm this year and instead comes off the bench as a middle forward.
Other contenders are Danny Levi and possibly Manase Fainu. On the surface, Fainu looks like an exciting option as he's a former Junior Kiwi and is having a great season for Manly Sea Eagles, yet I believe he will be playing for Tonga against Aotearoa. If Maguire has moved past Luke, Levi is doing a nice job for Newcastle Knights and a Smith/Levi combo would give the Kiwis plenty of firepower around the ruck.
Coming into the forwards, it's middle forwards and edge forwards. There is no shortage of Kiwis forwards, however the top tier still revolves around Jesse Bromwich, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Martin Taupau. Those three are definite selections and as Leeson Ah Mau and Isaac Liu were in last year's squads, they have done enough to back up this year. Liu primarily played on an edge last year for Kiwis and has settled back into the middle for Roosters this season, so expect him to be a middle contender.
The big name to watch out for is Nelson Asofa-Solomona. There has been a dip in Asofa-Solomona's production and efficiency for Melbourne Storm this season, which doesn't lend itself to winning selection, although he is a monster. Unavailable for the post-season internationals, Asofa-Solomona has shown that he explodes with heartiness for Aotearoa and I'm eager to see him play in a forward pack of this quality.
Liu could possibly change roles with James Fisher-Harris, who was a middle forward for Aotearoa last year. Fisher-Harris dabbles in both edge and middle for Panthers and while they currently suck, Fisher-Harris who should always be in Kiwis squads. Getting niggly here though, is that Tohu Harris will return to Kiwis camp and I'm fairly happy with a Harris/Kevin Proctor edge forward pairing.
Proctor enjoyed a strong comeback under Maguire and I don't see any reason for Maguire to change his mind on Proctor, especially not with Harris entering the frame. Having two, rugged, experienced and hearty edge forwards is an asset in conjunction with the grizzly nature of the forward pack. Kenny Bromwich is also playing edge consistently for Melbourne Storm, while Joseph Tapine is out injured and from this point, it's hard to see Adam Blair demanding selection.
My strongest forward pack/bench...
Middles: Bromwich, Waerea-Hargreaves, Taupau.
Edges: Harris, Proctor.
Bench: Smith, Ah Mau, Fisher-Harris, Asofa-Solomona.
Extras: Liu, Bromwich, Levi.
The level below that is just as enticing. Herman Ese'ese eventually found his way to strong work for Newcastle Knights this season and Isaiah Papali'i is another perfect candidate to be with the squad for experience. Joining Papali'i in that younger tier who need something to ease their way into the Kiwis group is Briton Nikora and Braden Hamlin-Uele from Cronulla Sharks, Marata Niukore (Parramatta Eels) and Corey Harawira-Naera (Bulldogs).
A lot has been made about the movement of players between representing Tonga and Aotearoa, setting the scene for a very interesting situation with Agnatius Paasi. Paasi was named in Tonga's squad late last year, only to pull out and join Aotearoa on their tour of England; making the opposite move of the big dawgs. I can't imagine Paasi will waltz back into the Tongan squad to then play Aotearoa and he wouldn't look out of place on any Kiwis bench.
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