Whatever way you spin it, Simon Mannering's absence from the upcoming Four Nations tournament is bad news for the Kiwis campaign.
The long-time captain was scratched from the touring party yesterday, after not making a full recovery from recent minor knee surgery.
It wasn't wholly unexpected, as the 30-year-old was always going to be touch and go following the operation earlier this month, but Mannering would have been near the top of the list of players that Kiwis coach David Kidwell didn't want to lose.
Mannering has missed the last five Kiwis tests (three against England at the end of 2015 and two against Australia this year) and the team just haven't looked the same without him. New Zealand have lost four of those matches, conceding three tries or more in each of those defeats in Hull, Wigan, Newcastle and Perth.
Mannering is near irreplaceable in terms of his defensive capabilities around the ruck, something the team (and their fans) have discovered to their cost. His experience, grit and big game nous would also be invaluable to a touring party that looks green around the edges, with only four players who have played 30 tests or more (Adam Blair, Issac Luke, Thomas Leuluai and Jason Nightingale) and a rookie captain in Jesse Bromwich.
"Simon will be sorely missed for his leadership, experience and work ethic," admitted Kidwell. "[But] I wanted to make the decision based on what is best for Simon. I gave him that [extra] week [before Perth] out of respect for what he has done for the jersey. If he was on track he was definitely coming on tour but there were a few minor hiccups there."
Mannering was progressing well in his recovery until a training session last Sunday, when he pulled up sore, leading to another visit to the surgeon on Monday.
"We made a collective decision based on evidence from the surgeon, physio, Simon's feelings and my feelings," said Kidwell. "We wanted Simon to be at 100 per cent."
Mannering is replaced in the squad by James Fisher-Harris, who has been on standby since the team was named two weeks ago. The Penrith youngster, who hails from a small Northland settlement on the Hokianga harbour, was one of the most impressive rookies in the NRL in 2016. The 20-year-old played all but three of the Panthers' games this year, averaging 68 running metres and 22 tackles per game in his debut season.
"He was really high on our list for the initial squad, but narrowly missed out," said Kidwell.
"He's come through the NZRL pathways and has performed at a very high level in the NRL. For a 20-year-old to play first grade like he does is a credit to him."
The Kiwis depart for London tonight, ahead of their opening Four Nations assignment against England in Huddersfield on November 30.