As we lead into Aotearoa Kiwis vs Tonga, there are still a bunch of intriguing selection moves to be made by Kiwis coach Michael Maguire. This increased when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak got released from Penrith Panthers, which led to many folk suggesting that Watene-Zelezniak would join Maguire at Wests Tigers only for the Bulldogs to swoop on the Kiwis captain.
Unfortunately for Watene-Zelezniak, there are two blokes who are currently demanding a gig at fullback for Aotearoa in Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad with Canberra Raiders and Jahrome Hughes with Melbourne Storm. Even more unfortunate for Watene-Zelezniak is that it's highly unlikely for the two kiwi fullbacks who are in great form to be selected at fullback as that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck lad is the best in the business. That's a long way around saying that Watene-Zelezniak is currently the fourth best fullback option.
Moving to the Tigers could have helped Watene-Zelezniak as he'd be able to build on his established relationship with Maguire. Now that Watene-Zelezniak is off to the Bulldogs, the only thing working in his favour is that he'll probably be guaranteed game time at fullback and there's a long-term combination with Kieran Foran that could be pieced together.
For this Kiwis vs Tonga game though, Watene-Zelezniak hasn't even been playing footy and that's making it harder and harder to select him even if Maguire loves the bloke. Fullback feels out of reach for Watene-Zelezniak, the centres are locked down with Joseph Manu and Esan Marsters while Maguire not only watched Nicoll-Klokstad sizzle in the Raiders 28-0 win over Tigers, the Kiwis coach also saw a typically slick outing from Jordan Rapana.
Ken Maumalo is obviously a wing contender, along with the likes of Jamayne Isaako and Shaun Kenny-Dowall. Then there is Raiders winger Bailey Simonsson who has previously played for Aotearoa Sevens and Bulldogs winger Reimis Smith. Again, this is to suggest that there is enough depth without Watene-Zelezniak throughout the backline and on the one side we have the depth and lack of NRL game time for the current skipper, countered by Watene-Zelezniak being the leader Maguire appointed.
If I were to re-visit my predicted Kiwis team, I'd have a back three of Tuivasa-Sheck, Maumalo and Rapana. Nicoll-Klokstad would be in the squad as a development option, while the curveball here is playing Hughes as a half alongside either Shaun Johnson or Kodi Nikorima.
The Nikorima/Johnson combo is likely to be rolled out as they already have a simmering combination, although Johnson may not be deemed available if he only plays one game before the Test. Like Nicoll-Klokstad, Hughes' form is undeniable and he has to be in the squad considering he toured England last year with the Kiwis and while he's primarily been used at fullback, Melbourne Storm's attack hit a nek level vs Warriors when Hughes went into the halves.
Brodie Croft played 28 minutes and then left the field injured, with Ryan Papenhuyzen going to fullback and Hughes into the halves. Hughes is an extremely slick baller and depending on the circumstance, wouldn't look out of place as a Kiwis half and this would then open up the log-jam at fullback slightly.
Nikorima and Johnson is the first option. I reckon Benji Marshall's experience and class would work well against Tonga also, as Marshall would be the bloke in charge of turning Tonga around, ensuring they are working the footy off their try-line, forcing repeat sets and executing plays. Just as I'm eager to see the speed and footwork of Nikorima/Johnson, or Nikorima/Hughes, there is something about the experience and quality of Marshall in this one game window, that will be useful vs Tonga.
As for Kieran Foran, he simply isn't demanding selection. This is the same argument I'd make against selecting Marshall; both are playing alright for mediocre teams. You could say the same for Nikorima, but he's an incumbent and deserves that opportunity to re-up and develop the combination with Johnson ... then Johnson's barely been playing any footy. Hughes is the only legit option who is in the type of form to blow the other contenders away and he might not even be selected.
The argument for selecting Foran would be to see him back in the Kiwis mix. Foran has earned stripes for Aotearoa and is currently showing that he can stay on the park, which for a player with those stripes could be all that is required. The Bulldogs aren't exactly a team full of attacking weapons, so it's difficult to lay the blame there on Foran and at the very least, he's having a crack; Foran's run for 100+ metres in his last two games and 70+ metres for his last five games.
To further complicate matters, or perhaps offer clarity, the absence of Danny Levi could result in the bench utility spot opening up. This will depend on how Maguire views Issac Luke and my preference is still for a Luke/Brandon Smith combo, however Maguire could continue to start Smith and then look for Nikorima or Hughes to come off the bench. This little wrinkle depends on the availability of Johnson and if Johnson's good to go,then having Johnson, Foran, Smith and Nikorima sparking up off the bench would be kinda funky.
Plenty of options, huh? Things won't get any easier for coach Maguire moving forward as the level of depth will only make these decisions nigglier. Maguire has a wide range of players to select from and that could be narrowed down very quickly over the next week and a bit, depending on injuries etc.
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