Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: NRL standouts earn Kiwis debuts

Kiwis coach David Kidwell has named a strong side for his team's clash with Australia. Photo / Getty Images
Kiwis coach David Kidwell has named a strong side for his team's clash with Australia. Photo / Getty Images

Warriors centre Solomone Kata and Canberra winger Jordan Rapana have taken unlikely routes to the Kiwis jersey, but both demanded selection after standout NRL seasons this year.

Kata and Rapana will make their New Zealand debuts on Saturday against Australia, the uncapped duo among seven changes to the side that lost 16-0 to the Kangaroos in May.

New coach David Kidwell has been quick to stamp his mark, naming a team with power and size across the park.

Roosters enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is the other notable inclusion, returning to the Kiwis for the first time since the 2013 World Cup.

Hooker Issac Luke is also back, after missing out on the test in Newcastle due to his indifferent form at the Warriors.

But the rise of Kata and Rapana are the most compelling stories. Kata only made his first grade debut at the start of last season, but has established himself as one of the most solid centres in the NRL. The 23-year-old, who arrived in New Zealand from Tonga on a rugby scholarship in 2011, scored 15 tries in 21 games this season and averaged 113 running metres per match.

Rapana made his NRL debut for the Titans in 2008, before leaving professional sport for a two year Mormon mission. He returned to the NRL in 2013 - after a stint in Super Rugby - and scored 23 tries this season at Canberra, equal top in the competition and a Raiders record.

Thomas Leuluai and Shaun Johnson pair up in the halves while Kidwell has opted for four forwards on the bench, with Manu Ma'u and Lewis Brown to provide injury cover in the backline. Jesse Bromwich will captain the Kiwis for the second time, with Raiders second rower Joseph Tapine and Sharks utility Gerard Beale named on an extended bench.

Meanwhile, Tohu Harris, who will partner Kevin Proctor in the back row, admits he is still slightly "in awe" of Kangaroo's Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, but won't let that admiration affect his performance on Saturday night.

Smith and Cronk are two of the legends of the sport - both tipped as possible future immortals - and have played a big role in Harris' development since he went to the Storm in 2010.

The Kiwis back rower has played more than 100 matches alongside the duo, including the grand final this season.

But on Saturday they will be the enemy, the men the Kiwis will have to stop if there is any chance of another famous victory over Australia.

"I've played against them a few times but I still find it a bit odd," said Harris. "I am still a little bit in awe of them, if that makes sense. They are great players and I feel lucky and privileged to play alongside them. When you see them across the other side of the field in that green and gold jersey it is a bit surreal...but you can't focus too much on who is wearing it. You can't dwell on that, otherwise they will run circles around you."

In the space of three years Harris has become a key member of the Kiwis. He played every minute of every game on last year's tour of England, and will pick up some extra defensive workload on Saturday in the absence of Simon Mannering, who continues to recover from minor knee surgery.

Harris was part of the depleted New Zealand team beaten convincingly in May, but says the Kiwis haven't lost any belief.

"I wouldn't say it did any [pyschological] damage," said Harris. "We learnt a lot from that game and hopefully we can correct the things we did wrong. Australia has a very strong team, and we need to make sure we are playing with energy, to our strengths and [that] we defend well. We need to [be] up for that challenge."

Kiwis team to face Kangaroos:

1 Jordan Kahu
2 Jason Nightingale
3 Solomone Kata
4 Shaun Kenny-Dowall
5 Jordan Rapana
6 Thomas Leuluai
7 Shaun Johnson
8 Jesse Bromwich (c)
9 Issac Luke
10 Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
11 Kevin Proctor
12 Tohu Harris
13 Jason Taumalolo
14 Lewis Brown
15 Martin Taupau
16 Manu Ma'u
17 Adam Blair
18 Joseph Tapine
19 Gerard Beale

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