Rugby league fever is gripping New Zealand at the moment, and for once, the national team will get to capitalise.
Michael Maguire’s Kiwis have a potential blockbuster against Samoa at Eden Park and an away trip to Melbourne to face the Kangaroos, and should they win either of them, there’s a red hot chance that they make the Final, to be held on home turf in Waikato. It’s a huge carrot for them.
Not that they needed one. New Zealand were devastated to lose to Australia in Leeds last year in what was, quality-wise at least, the best game of the World Cup.
How could it not be? Not even State of Origin comes close to the talent on display and, luckily for Madge et al, that only improves into this World Cup cycle.
Some of the old guard are gone, but a few – notably Shaun Johnson and Tohu Harris – have been back to their best in 2023, bringing a whole host of Warriors with them.
The fitness of those two is still very much an open question, and unfortunately, that transfers over to Jahrome Hughes and Joey Manu too. There’s a realistic chance that they enter this tournament without their best 1,6,7 and 13, which would be devastating.
Then again, if all play, then it’s beyond doubt that the quality of the backline has improved and the forwards, already the best in the world, are just as good if not better.
The Kiwis have some real heavy-hitters, especially in the forwards.
The middle rotation of James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Joseph Tapine is as good as it gets, bar none.
On the edge, Scott Sorensen might be elevated to a starting role on the back of a strong season, while Briton Nikora will certainly hold onto a place.
Brandon Smith will be the starting hooker and Jeremy Marshall-King the back-up.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will undoubtedly be elevated to the starting XIII on a wing – amazingly, he was the only Wah in the 2021 RLWC squad – and it’s hard to see Ronaldo Mulitalo not taking the other wing. Jamayne Isaako has to be in as depth, either on the wing or as fullback.
Also from the Warriors will be Marata Niukore (probably as a centre, maybe as a bench utility) and Charze Nicoll-Klokstad, who will either be a centre or fullback, depending on Manu’s fitness.
Dylan Brown will fit in the squad somewhere and Matt Timoko has burst into contention and will certainly be picked this time after being a reserve in 2021.
There’s a lot of lingering uncertainty over some of the most important positions and biggest names in this squad, so let’s get into it.
Shaun Johnson and Jahrome Hughes, who would be the starting halves, are both under huge injury clouds and have been week-to-week in the later parts of the NRL season.
They would dearly love to play for the Kiwis and will be in if they can suit up, but can’t be said to be anything like certainties at the moment.
Joey Manu is in the same boat with a torn hamstring. Having left the Roosters’ game on September 9, he’ll get six weeks off before the Kiwis face Samoa on October 21, and should make it.
Tohu Harris is also held together with sticky tape at the moment and missed the World Cup but, if he is fit enough, would be the obvious choice for the 13 jersey. Isaac Liu has impressed there too this year at the Titans and will be in the squad as middle or lock depth.
Isaiah Papali’i had a poor 2023 but it’s hard to see Maguire ditching him after one bad year. Whether he makes the starting squad or not is another thing, but it would be a surprise if he wasn’t somewhere.
The Kiwis squad at the World Cup has some elder statesmen in it, and they’ll likely not make it this time around.
The Bromwich brothers, Jesse and Kenny, will likely be left to enjoy their summer in Redcliffe. See also Kieran Foran, just with a different part of South East Queensland.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is suspended, though they might not have picked him anyway, while they would have selected Seb Kris as an all-around utility before his ban.
Peta Hiku made it last year but is a little long in the tooth and won’t be called upon this time around.
It would be a surprise if Jordan Rapana made it, but it’s not a definite out as he covers a lot of positions.
The question marks that surround Manu, Johnson and Hughes leave a lot of moving parts for this team. If all are in, great, but if not, then a huge list of possibles would be in contention.
If we imagine that they’re all out, then Charnze moves to fullback, Brown comes into the starting squad at 6 and you need a new centre and a new halfback.
However, the pool of Kiwis-eligible halfbacks is frighteningly thin. Kodi Nikorima? Anthony Milford? Daejarn Asi? Ronald Volkman?
What might happen is that they put Brown in the 7 and Te Maire Martin at five eighth, or convince Foran to go around again.
With CNK at the back, they could well just move Niukore there and elevate Jordan Riki to the squad, but Adam Pompey and Rocco Berry would be in with a shout if they wanted a full-timer, especially to resume that combination with DWZ.