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Opinion

My NRL first XV to take on union in a crossover game

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Roar Pro
18th March, 2021
132
2605 Reads

Long ago – in 2020 – a mooted game between the All Blacks and the Kangaroos was on the table with talks apparently becoming very serious.

While a league and union crossover game should never happen, these are the players who should be in the starting 15 and on the bench if it ever did eventuate (and for some reason they decided to play proper rugby union).

Of course, there are issues with union-specific skills such as lineouts and scrums, but for argument’s sake, let’s forget all about that and just pretend the crossover would work perfectly.

1. Prop – Josh Papalii
A beast on the field, he has the body and frame to be an excellent front-rower in union while bringing something extra. Lightning-quick feet for someone of his size, Papalii would be able to do the dirty work in the forwards and also provide line-break assists with his offloading skill.

Great hands for a big fella, the man would have no trouble catching the quick passes at the line that have become staples of the best teams in the union world.

2. Hooker – Brandon Smith
He has the body shape and height of a natural union hooker. He does lack the true bulk of some of his peers, but more than makes up for it with his tenacity and ferociousness. The Cheese loves to get into the dirty work and has no issue mixing it with the bigger bodies.

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I see him playing a similar role to the one that Dane Coles does for the All Blacks – lots of tackles and niggle while also being comfortable all across the park with offloading, quick hands and breaking the line.

3. Prop – Payne Haas
Just an absolute workhorse. The man would change the way we viewed the prop position. With the motor and ability to be lethal on attack and fantastic defence as well.

He would quickly be considered one of the most well-rounded props in the game. A big man for the prop game, he would be like a supercharged version of Carl Hayman. Silky feet, good hands and a love of hitting the ball up would make him immediately capable of dominating the game.

His team would love his ability to get them front-foot ball and his athleticism around the park, rarely seen at the prop position. Has the added benefit of being able to cover the lock position, if required.

Payne Haas of the Broncos.

Payne Haas (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

4. Lock – David Klemmer
One of the tallest players in league standing at 198 centimetres and a natural choice for the lock position in a union crossover. A strong ball-carrier who would have no issue hitting it up among the big boys in the opposing forward pack.

Lineouts would be a concern as he would be going up against opposition players usually over two metres. However, there has been a number of dominant locks under 2 metres who Klemmer should model his game off of, such as Brad Thorn and Paul O’Connell.

Has the ferocity to be an enforcer in the union game in the mould of a Bakkies Botha.

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5. Lock – Viliame Kikau
More of a hybrid lock-flanker than a traditional lock as he is a bit undersized for the position. What he lacks in height he makes up for in aggression and physicality.

Comfortable getting among the rough stuff in the middle, while also having the athleticism to take the ball to the second level, Kikau could be set a new benchmark for the lock position. A chance to break every tackle and offload to the outside backs, he might be a new breed for the lock position.

Viliame Kikau of the Panthers is tackled during match against Rabbitohs.

Viliame Kikau (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images).

6. Blindside flanker – Angus Crichton
Dominant runner, great open-field tackler and IQ for the game are what Crichton brings to the position. With good size for the blindside position, he could be used in the lineout as a second or third option.

Dynamic in the open field, he would form a great tandem with Jason Taumalolo if they decided to go blind off a scrum. Another player who is electric with the ball in hand, he provides offloads and explosiveness at the blindside position.

7. Openside flanker – Cameron Murray
Undersized compared to the 100-kilogram giants walking around at the openside position currently, what he lacks in size, he makes up for in dogged determination.

One of the leading tacklers in the NRL outside of the hooker position, with 900 in the 2020 season, he would immediately be at home flying off the side of the scrum to attack 10s and 12s in the midfield. Enjoys running the ball, as well, which adds another effective attacking player to this forward pack.

8. Number eight – Jason Taumalolo (vc)
Harking back to old-school number eight with this pick. Imagine Taumalolo exploding off the back of the scrum and eyeing up the opposing number 10 for a hit up. Again, quick feet for such a big man with great offloading, he would be an ideal choice for the eight spot, given the freedom this position provides.

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Jason Taumalolo

Jason Taumalolo (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

While not an amazing defender, he can hold his own and would find it easier to defend around the ruck in the Union game. His influence would be focused on the attacking end of the park.

Impossible to stop off a short ball at the line, he would also form a deadly combination with halfback Damien Cook off the back of the scrum.

9. Halfback – Damien Cook
Electric around the ruck and able to break through to the second level, Cook is the natural choice to play halfback if a crossover match ever occurred. His quickness gives him the ability to make each breakdown and keep the ball zipping around, which will give his backline countless attacking opportunities.

In the Aaron Smith mould, the little man would do well to model his game after the AB number nine as he has similar tools and a similar build. One development is the need for a box kick, as kicking is not something he demonstrates in the NRL.

This is the selection I was most excited about seeing happen and if he did switch over, he’d give Nic White a challenge for halfback duties for the Wallabies after a year or two.

10. First five-eighth – Nathan Cleary (c)
With a career 84 per cent goal kicking percentage and a talented passing game, Cleary is the ideal selection for the number ten spot in this team. He reads the game well, is calm under pressure and makes quick decisions, all of the skills required for an excellent first five in the modern union game.

He also adds an excellent running game, with silky footwork and the ability to explode through a gap. Comfortable scoring tries and also setting them up, he has all the tools to unlock this devastating backline.

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11. Left wing – Maika Sivo
Another flying Fijian who would transition perfectly to the 15-man game. This man relishes contact and is a beast close to the line. With the dominant playmakers on his inside, he would get plenty of chances to go one-on-one with his opposite number and as he has proven in the NRL, chances are he would run them over.

While he definitely could be the defensive liability for this team, the likes of James Tedesco, who reads the game so well, on his inside would help to cover up for this. Simply a force of nature, Sivo would score a boatload of tries in this team.

Maika Sivo gives the thumbs up

Maika Sivo (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

12. Second five-eighth – Jack Wighton
Quick feet and the ability to step, fend and kick makes Wighton an ideal target for the 12 position. He would take on secondary playmaking duties and provide a nice left-foot, right-foot combination with Nathan Cleary in the five-eighth positions.

As in the NRL, he is a runner full of flair who seems to relish the contact game. While not necessarily a strong defensive player, his previous time at fullback in the NRL would benefit him in making the one-on-one tackles required for this position.

He would thrive with the playmakers and athletes around him as well, his ability to step and offload creating holes for his outside teammates.

13. Centre – James Tedesco
The current best player in league was the first name on the team sheet for this writer, the only problem was where to put him. Not a natural kicker of the ball, he would still exploit many a defender from the fullback position and he reads the game so well that he wouldn’t get lost back there.

However, centre is the position he would be able to have the most influence on the game and where he can be so explosive. A tackle-breaking, distributing genius, he would constantly leave the defenders in two minds as to whether to commit to the tackle or to the pass.

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His wingers would receive so much open field ball from his passing that it would be try time constantly. You would be hard-pressed to find a man better suited to switching codes, he is simply unbelievable.

14. Right wing – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Copying a trick from the All Blacks in playing a traditional fullback in the right-wing position, Tuivasa-Sheck is the perfect person to fill this spot. He has electric feet and would be almost impossible to take down in a one-on-one situation, a situation he should receive plenty more of in the union world.

A strong defender, he is capable of try-saving tackles and has the pace to catch up if the line is broken. A good communicator and solid leader, he has the skill to fill a similar role to how the All Blacks used Ben Smith in the early 2010s.

It will be interesting to see how he transitions when he does make the jump for real in 2022.

15. Fullback – Kalyn Ponga
The young man is simply a superstar. Lightning off the mark, the ability to step off both feet, strong under the high ball and this prowess in the kicking game make him the ideal candidate to fill the fullback spot for this crossover team.

I wouldn’t want to be the man rushing out of the line to try to tackle him on a kick return, he has the feet to make any defender look foolish. With 27 tries and 34 try assists in 59 games for the Knights, the man knows how to find the try line and would be hugely instrumental in setting up the wingers in this squad.

His headgear fits right in in the world of rugby union as well, so he was a no-brainer selection for the 15 spot.

Kalyn Ponga scores a try

Kalyn Ponga (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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16. Liam Martin
The backup hooker in this spot. The little nugget from the Panthers is a fiery, hard man who won’t take a backward step for anyone. He makes the team to provide a real punch of fire for the last 10-15 minutes of the game.

A great tackler and solid ball-runner, he would be a well-rounded hooker who his teammates would love to get in behind.

17. Junior Paulo
A perfect build for the prop position, Junior Paulo would be like replacing Papalii with himself. Simply a bruising runner with ball in hand, he would feast off the bench, dominating in close.

A brick wall of a man, he would be ideally suited to ruck defence and would be a menace in the scrum with his strength and agility. A big man with a ferocity to his game that would make him an ideal man for the end of the game.

18. Daniel Saifiti
A devastating ball-runner who would give the second unit a boost from the prop position. He has the skill to start and wouldn’t be happy about starting on the pine. A strong leader, he has all of the qualities that a solid prop needs, strong, fit, fast and aggressive.

He would be a part of the leadership group for this team and his calm, level-headed play would rub off on some of his more reckless teammates. A must-have player in this team.

19. Nelson Asofa-Solomona
The big man would be an ideal locking cover in this team. He provides punch off the bench, loves to hit the ball up and his offloading skill would unlock the team in the final quarter of the game.

A massive unit of a man who would match up, height-wise, with the majority of locks around the world, he would be a weapon in the lineout and on the lineout drive.

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Somewhat suspect hands would need to be worked on and his aggression can get the best of him at times which is why coming off the bench is the best spot for him in this team.

20. David Fifita
A dominant and feared ball carrier, bringing this man off the bench to wreak havoc on opposing tired forwards is simply unfair. With unreal leg drive, great agility and an eye for the gap, Fifita would cover all positions across the back row with aplomb.

Similar in skillset to Ardie Savea, he has all of the tools to be just as devastating a player and could push for starting honours in this team.

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21. Mitch Rein
A yappy little upstart, Mitch Rein would be a terror for any opposing team when coming on with 20 minutes to go. When you are exhausted, the worst thing that can happen is a little Jack Russell that wants to play coming at you.

Quick around the park and with a strong pass, Rein would be able to take advantage of the slowing forwards to create havoc in the last quarter of the game. While not physically similar to TJ Perenara, he could impact the game in a similarly dominant way, controlling the pace of the ending.

22. Luke Keary
Stephen Larkham-esque is how I see Luke Keary’s game translating to union. Good decision-making, slick passing and the ability to spot a gap are attributes he possesses in spades.

A player who can come on in any situation, read what needs to happen and understand how to play his role. Keary would be an invaluable asset to have off the bench for the league-union crossover team.

23. Zac Lomax
With the ability to cover fullback and centre in the NRL, Lomax makes the team on his versatility. Effective across the park, you can plug him in and move around different players to suit the needs of the team.

A great ball-runner with a wicked fend and strong agility, he would be well-suited to the union game. His size would come in handy towards the end of the game where he would be asked to take on more of the ball-carrying duties instead of his tired teammates.

Well, there you have it.

Pretending all the rules and rugby union-specific skills don’t matter, I think this squad is an ideal rugby union team and would have a chance against any of the top teams in the world.

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Roarers, who would you have in your 23? Let me know who and why in the comments.