New Zealand Rugby has confirmed talks are underway to stage a cross-code match between the All Blacks and the Kangaroos.
Rugby League’s Four Nations kicks off in Wellington on Saturday as the code looks to continue to build its international calendar. Let’s have a look at four key questions which will be answered over the next month.
I have chosen four because it’s the same number of teams in the tournament, i.e. four. It’s one of those incredibly clever tricks journalists can pull. I can hope you can see what I’ve done there.
1. Will the challengers rise?
The Kiwis look the best bet to beat the Kangaroos. On paper, it’s their best side in years. Their backline certainly looks better with Manu Vatuvai and an in-form Shaun Kenny-Dowall in the side. The team should also be continuing to improve with the stability of coach Kearney at the helm, but he has made some surprising choices.
Isaac Luke finds himself on the bench after being one of the best 80 minute players in the NRL this season.
His place has been taken by Thomas Leuluai, the player who won the Super League Grand Final man of the match at halfback and plays most of his football there.
Meanwhile, the halfback spot has gone to Nathan Fien who normally plays hooker.
Kearney has also named two wide running players who tend to hit the fringes, in Adam Blair and Bulldogs-bound Greg Eastwood, as his starting props. The two hardly fit the mould of the metre eating bookends, although if the reports of Eastwood’s condition are to be believed, that is the one thing he hasn’t been eating.
Eyebrows were also raised by Roy Asotasi’s non-selection, especially when he was beaten to a spot by Jared Waerea Hargreaves and Sam McKendry. The latter two are certainly good prospects, but Asotasi’s experience would have been seen by many as a deciding edge.
Still they have Benji, play three games at home, and have done well against the Aussies with worse sides.
2. Where in the world is Chris Heightington?
‘Pick me or I’ll play for England!’ That was the oft-repeated cry during the 2010 season as the Wests Tigers backrower and the team’s coach claimed if he wasn’t picked for NSW and then Australia he’d be off to play for the Poms.
Perhaps someone should have told the RFL.
A RFL source told me that the selection of Heightington would have gone against their policy on selection, which places an importance on players having pride in the jumper. It’s hard to disagree when a player has spent the whole season advertising the fact that an English test jumper was his second or third choice.
However, England’s job was made easier by the fact that their backrow is a relative embarrassment of riches, with Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess. Sean O’Loughlin is also making a welcome return to international football following some untimely injuries over the last few years.
The pack looks strong, despite the absence of Adrian Morley and Jamie Peacock. But it’s the backline which may struggle to keep pace with their Antipodean rivals.
Sam Tomkins is quality, but England would have loved to have had Kyle Eastmond partnering him at the scrum base, particularly with Richard Myler’s form slump since moving to Warrington.
The role of supporting Tomkins will fall to Huddersfield pairing of Kevin Brown and Luke Robinson.
3. How far have the Kumuls fallen?
I’m a romantic and I hope to see the day when PNG wins a Test series, but I truly fear for them in this tournament. While the side performed admirably at the World Cup, that progress could be hard to make out during the coming weeks.
Notable absentees are Gold Coast winger David Mead, through injury, and new Knights forward Neville Costigan, victim of some bizarre eligibility ruling.
They have been replaced by chaos.
The iconic Stanley Gene has stepped in as the new coach but has been given a side of local PNG players and players from the second tier in the UK. Paul Aiton is the only NRL player in the side and the dream of an NRL franchise could look a long, long way away in a few weeks.
I hope I’m proved wrong, but I doubt it.
4. Will the schedule work?
The tournament is short and sharp. It works nicely at the end of the season and there is little chance of playing too many games. Venue choice has been interesting.
The Kiwis will play England in Wellington and PNG in Rotorua before returning to Auckland for their big test against the Aussies. It’s encouraging to see the Kiwis looking to spread things outside of Auckland.
Wellington has drawn some big crowds in recent years, so it’s worth building on.
The Aussies, on the other hand, will play PNG in Parramatta, and the Lions in Melbourne, before heading to New Zealand.
Whatever you think about the draw, it can’t be said that rugby league fans in Melbourne have been forgotten about.
However, that the bean counters now think it’s better to play such Tests in Melbourne over Sydney is potentially the kick up the bum the crowds in Sydney have needed for a long time.