Mid-Season Internationals: Aotearoa Kiwis Final Squad

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Aotearoa Kiwis coach Michael Maguire has trimmed his extended squad down to a group of 19 to face Tonga on Saturday, with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak retained as skipper. All the mainstream media focus has been on Benji Marshall and his return to the Kiwis set up, however there are plenty of other low key interesting wrinkles to suss out.

From Maguire's initial wider squad, he has cut Isaiah Papali'i, Agnatius Paasi, Jamayne Isaako, Issac Luke, Jordan Rapana, Joseph Tapine and Kodi Nikorima, while Martin Taupau made the move to Samoa. As is always the case, players named in the wider squad with any type of injury or niggling injury history were ruled out and I'd suggest that Nikorima and Tapine were the most injury-impacted non-selections.

Isaako has been named for Samoa alongside Taupau, so whether Isaako made this move prior to his Kiwis wider squad selection or saw that he would be the fourth winger in the group and then moved to Samoa is kinda interesting. Rapana is a notable omission and while injuries may be a factor, squeezing Watene-Zelezniak in as skipper is also a factor and Rapana hasn't quite been racking up enough strong performances to bump Watene-Zelezniak or Ken Maumalo out of their starting spots.

There is now three halves trying to fit into two spots with Marshall, Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson all selected. The vibe is that Marshall and Johnson will start, while Foran misses out on team selection and given that Foran's always battling all sorts of niggly injuries, having him in the group without having to play could be a lovely move.

I'll preview the game in the next few days, but the general theme for Aotearoa is mobility and skill. With that in mind, I reckon the Marshall/Johnson combo is better suited to playing Tonga than Foran/Johnson as Foran is one of the most physical halves in the NRL and while his subtle touches and effort would always be welcome, Marshall's control and experience will be crucial to Kiwis success.

Foran on the bench? Probably not as Jahrome Hughes has the versatility to cover multiple positions and his form warrants a spot in the top-17. Brandon Smith will start at hooker and can play 80 minutes, while the speed and x-factor of Hughes will be valuable against the Tongan forwards. Alternatively, I can see Maguire rolling with four forwards on the bench, making Foran and Hughes the two who miss out.

How Maguire approaches this will be of great interest as he can either use the Kiwis strength in skill, speed and mobility against Tonga, or Maguire can focus more on trying to stop Tonga and rely more on his forwards. Usually, it's about celebrated what you do well and using that to counter the opponent, hence the Kiwis will likely play as fast as possible.

We will finally see Nelson Asofa-Solomona back in a Kiwis jersey and of all these players named, Marshall included, I'm most excited about the return of Asofa-Solomona. I expect Jesse Bromwich and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to start, probably with James Fisher-Harris and this will give the Kiwis the best chance of matching Tonga's initial onslaught, before the funk comes off the bench.

Leeson Ah Mau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Isaac Liu and Zane Tetevano will be in the mix for the bench spots. Depending on whether Hughes gets a bench utility spot or not, I've got Tetevano as the forward who will either make his debut off the bench or miss out and that will be the most intriguing selection decision for Maguire. The footwork of Ah Mau and Liu, combined with Asofa-Solomona's size/mobility will be crucial for Aotearoa either side of half-time.

That leaves us with Briton Nikora and Kenny Bromwich as the edge forwards. Nikora has been playing right edge for Cronulla Sharks, establishing a combination with Johnson, while Kenny has been on Melbourne Storm's left edge all season. They can seamlessly be injected into those roles for Aotearoa, or Maguire may opt for Liu or Fisher-Harris to play on an edge, bumping Nikora or Kenny Bromwich into the 18/19th man spot.

My top-17 from the squad selected...

Fullback: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

Wings: Ken Maumalo, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.

Centres: Joseph Manu, Esan Marsters.

Halves: Shaun Johnson, Benji Marshall.

Middles: Jesse Bromwich, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, James Fisher-Harris.

Edges: Briton Nikora, Kenny Bromwich.

Hooker: Brandon Smith.

Bench: Leeson Ah Mau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Isaac Liu, Zane Tetevano.

18/19th Man: Jahrome Hughes, Kieran Foran.

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