Aotearoa Kiwis coach Michael Maguire has the luxury of choice mid-way through the 2019 season in selecting his squad to face Tonga and that presents a different vibe to what Maguire is going to serve up. Last year, Maguire was forced into a few decisions and even forced into a redemption narrative, which now presents a situation where Maguire can lay down a few key markers in terms of how he wants to take the Kiwis forward.
This mainly revolves around the balance of bringing in young lads, while keeping the experienced folk around. Again, this is further reason as to why Aotearoa rugby league needs an Aotearoa 'A' team or squad so that there is something below the Kiwis to keep these players in the mix. In isolation for this game vs Tonga though, I reckon Maguire will stick with a grizzly group and offer an opportunity to Briton Nikora to start on an edge...
Fullback: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Wings: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Ken Maumalo.
Centres: Esan Marsters, Joseph Manu.
Halves: Shaun Johnson, Kodi Nikorima.
Middles: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jesse Bromwich, James Fisher-Harris.
Edges: Tohu Harris, Briton Nikora.
Hooker: Issac Luke.
Bench: Brandon Smith, Martin Taupau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Leeson Ah Mau.
Whether Maguire rolls with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will be super duper intriguing as Maguire's Kiwis skipper is out of favour at Penrith Panthers and may never play for Penrith again. With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck coming back, he will take the fullback spot and maybe the captaincy, but beyond that, Maguire will be required to make a tough call with one of the wing spots; Watene-Zelezniak or Jordan Rapana.
I've got Ken Maumalo locked in and Rapana may be unavailable through injury, then it's a case of Watene-Zelezniak being a better option than Jamayne Isaako. This could be a low key defining moment of Maguire's Kiwis coaching tenure as a serious dose of loyalty to his captain from 2018, will be hearty. An alternative is that Maguire wants to ease in a youngster like Reimis Smith from the Bulldogs.
Another key move will be in the halves - how awesome is it to have two young centres locked in!? I've gone with Shaun Johnson as I think he'll be healthy, to partner Nikorima and continue their development as a combination. If Johnson isn't able to hit Kiwis footy straight after an injury though, then Maguire will have to go with either Kieran Foran or Benji Marshall; Dylan Brown and Te Maire Martin are out injured.
My preference is definitely Benji and based on form, Foran's got a long way to go before sniffing around a Kiwis jersey. Benji recently said he shouldn't be selected as the Kiwis need to build to the next World Cup, although this is a unique scenario with Johnson questionable, Foran meh and the young halves out injured. Chuck in Benji for a game and let's have fun.
The experience in the forward pack is useful, headlined by the return of Tohu Harris who missed all Kiwis games last year. With Jesse Bromwich, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and James Fisher-Harris holding down the starting middle roles, Briton Nikora should earn an Aotearoa debut on an edge.
Kevin Proctor got back in favour last year and I wouldn't be too bothered if he was selected here, yet Nikora is the in-form Kiwis edge forward; better than Proctor, Alex Glenn, Corey Harawira-Naera, Marata Niukore and Isaiah Papali'i. The Johnson/Nikora combo is already established from Cronulla Sharks and while I'm definitely leaning towards a wider vibe of experience, Nikora can't be overlooked.
Issac Luke has been doing enough to win back the starting role, however Danny Levi's strong work with Newcastle Knights recently could see Maguire roll with Brandon Smith starting and Levi off the bench. I'd prefer Luke starting, Smith off the bench and if anyone is going to look favourably at Luke, it should be his former Rabbitohs coach. Luke's kicking game will be beneficial vs Tonga, while all three are dynamic runners and don't give up anything defensively through the middle.
Everything gets tricky when trying to piece together the bench and along with Smith, I've got Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Martin Taupau and Leeson Ah Mau. This boiled down to Ah Mau vs Joseph Tapine vs Isaac Liu for that last bench spot and any of those three would be awesome to have on the bench. I like the variety that Ah Mau offers among that combination, however all these options are handy.
There is a Kiwis core that will hold things together and then Maguire has some niggly decisions to make. Adding Asofa-Solomona and Harris to the forward pack will be immense, along with Tuivasa-Sheck and ushering them into this new Madge regime will offer us a fresh look at Aotearoa Kiwis.
Hit an ad to support the international footy chat.
Support the Niche Cache was we try to build our base on Patreon. Support the underdogs as best you can, a little goes a long way.
Peace and love 27.