League: Kangaroos a wee bit sketchy

By Steve Deane

Kiwis captain Benji Marshall, left, with Shaun Kenny-Dowall during the captain's run at Eden Park yesterday. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Kiwis captain Benji Marshall, left, with Shaun Kenny-Dowall during the captain's run at Eden Park yesterday. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Signs the Kangaroos' dominance of international league might be slipping have tended to point those who follow them smack-bang into brick walls.

Australia's reservoir of gifted players never seems to run dry. Putting out a side capable of making their opponents catch their breath a little on receipt of the team sheet has never been a problem for the Lucky Country. The likes of Brad Fittler and Darren Lockyer have stepped up just as Allan Langer or Laurie Daley have drifted off.

While outstanding general Cooper Cronk's ascension to the starting line-up at halfback and Johnathan Thurston's shifting into Lockyer's vacated 6 jumper appears another frighteningly seamless transition, there are signs (here we go) the talent pool might just be shallowing.

Leaving aside the emotional rhetoric over James Tamou's defection, the fact remains the Kangaroos have picked a player not even deemed good enough to tour with a weak Kiwis team just six months ago.

Tamou has improved markedly since then, but even so.

Having jumped ship, Tamou will play alongside Paul Gallen, a backrower first pressed into service at prop - extremely successfully - by New South Wales due to a shortage of quality metre eaters. With the ageing Petero Civoniceva's powers waning and Matt Scott and Keith Galloway injured, the cupboard looks just a touch bare.

By contrast, the strength of the Kiwis' front row can be gauged by the players left out - Greg Eastwood, Fuifui Moimoi and boom youngster Sam Kasiano.

"I'm not saying that Australia is blessed with multiple choices [at prop] otherwise Gal probably is playing 13," Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens admitted. "I don't think it is the end of the world for Australia in that regard but probably some of the better ones coming around are Kiwi boys, there's no doubt about that."

With the Kangaroos' propping rotation still boasting standouts David Shillington and Ben Hannant, it is little surprise Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney is wary of claiming any superiority up front.

"I don't look at it like that," Kearney said. "You'd be pretty happy if you had Gallen in your front row. When Tim says we are a big side, y'know Shillington is a big lad, Tamou is a real big lad, so I don't think we have an advantage there. I just think we have some guys who are playing well at the moment."

While he fields a team missing only Manly stars Kieran Foran and Steve Matai from what would be deemed a first-choice line-up, Kearney was again wary of extolling too many of its potential virtues.

"Well, it's stronger than the team we took away to England for the Four Nations," he said. "If everyone in our side plays to their potential and we can set a base for our backs then I think we'll give ourselves a great opportunity."

How well Kearney's side matches Australia's ability to gel on minimal preparation looms as the other key factor. The familiarity of a Queensland-dominated backline and trio of brilliant Melbourne Storm spine players has proved decisive in recent encounters.

"The spine of this team has been together for four or five years now and the core has remained the same," vice captain Gallen said. "As a forward I just have to go where they tell me to go. That makes my job pretty simple. It makes the rest of the team's pretty simple too. They've got the calls down pat and they know what is going on, which is a big plus for us."

One unknown is how Australia will cope with the absence of Lockyer for the first time since his retirement. The long-serving captain was such a quiet, unassuming type that so far he had hardly been missed, Gallen said. That could change once the team gets on the field.

"I suppose any rugby league team is going to miss his composure and how settled and calm he is, how much he can control the game. [Tonight] will probably tell the story of that a bit more."

It will also reveal whether the selection of a couple of props that smacks just a little of desperation is a sign of things to come, or merely a pointer to another dead end.

- NZ Herald

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