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The Roar


Dylan's debut, Samoa's spine and Upton under pressure: Five big questions ahead of the Pacific Championships

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11th October, 2023

Test footy is almost upon us, and the storylines are swirling everywhere as the Kangaroos and Samoa get ready for battle in Townsville, with a tasty clash between the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns up beforehand on Saturday evening.

It’s the long awaited return for Australia’s national rugby league teams to home soil – they haven’t played here since late 2019, with a combination of the pandemic and a World Cup in the UK keeping them away.

Now, it’s the start of a smorgasbord of international action, with four consecutive weekends of Test footy featuring Australia, not to mention a Sunday serving from Port Moresby between Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands, plus Fiji and Samoa’s women. 

Aussie coach Mal Meninga has named four debutants for the Men’s clash, with Dylan Edwards earning a long-awaited rep jumper, as well as Selwyn Cobbo, Kotoni Staggs and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, while the big call from Samoa’s new boss Ben Gardiner will be Stephen Crichton at five eighth.

Tamika Upton is the headline attraction for the Jillaroos, making her first Test appearance as Australia looks to keep up their exceptional record over New Zealand. 

Here’s the big questions going into the first week of the Pacific Championships.

Is Dylan Edwards the Kangaroos’ best winger?


The Penrith fullback has been the most rated underrated player of the last few years, with pundits falling over themselves to question why he wasn’t named in rep squads.

It’s easy to ask that question, and it makes you look like you know what you’re on about, because run metres, but in truth, Edwards has never been a realistic chance given the existence of James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell, Tom Trbojevic, Reece Walsh, Kalyn Ponga and that’s just a few.

Now, Edwards gets his chance, but as a winger. It’s not that he hasn’t done the job before, because on the wing is where he came into grade, and it’s not that he doesn’t deserve it, because his body of work is superb and, in any other position and in many other eras, he would have played rep footy already.

But big questions remain. Edwards is the perfect player to fit in at fullback in Penrith’s system, but that won’t be what he faces on Saturday night against Samoa.

Whether he fits in elsewhere is a live argument, especially with Murray Taulagi, who he is essentially replacing, and Brian To’o, the best winger in the world, on the other side.

Mal mentioned his desire for specialists as the reason for not picking Edwards among a crowded pack of fullbacks – only to then pick him on the wing. 

Does Australia not have other wingers? A penny for the thoughts of Taulagi or Reuben Garrick, who play there every week to very high standards only to be replaced by a guy with three appearances across three seasons on the wing.


Can the Aussie backrowers do the job?

On specialists: Australia have picked just one back-rower, Liam Martin, and will be looking to fill in the rest from elsewhere.

As it stands, that’s Cam Murray, though he has never done his best work in the position and has struggled to be as impactful there at rep level.

He’ll give 100% effort and do all of the dirty work that we expect of him as a lock, but on the skills of being an edge defender – pace and footwork, in particular – can he match up?

Samoa have named Luciano Leilua and Connelly Lemeulu in their second row spots, and while neither of them are as good as Murray, they’ll certainly be fired up having both missed last year’s World Cup.

Ben Gardiner will know that this is somewhere that his side can side success, so expect a lot of traffic to go that way.

(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)


How are Samoa going to score?

If you look at the side that Toa Samoa are going to run out, there shouldn’t be any issues getting up the field.

The middle with the one-two punch of Junior Paulo and Stefano Utoikamanu, is excellent, and the set starts from Taulagi and To’o will be so good that they can leave Greg Marzhew in the reserves. 

It’s going to be bash and barge, and the Kangaroos will be questioned as to their ability to stop it. That was good enough to get Samoa to the World Cup Final last year and there’s no reason to change tack.

In 2022, however, they had a few other advantages are aren’t here this time around. They’ve got a different 1, 6, 7 and 9, and two of those are very, very young in Sua Fa’alogo at fullback and Gordon Chan Kum Tong at hooker.

One of the most exciting things about this Samoa team is the glance at the next generation, and the performances of those two towards the back end of the year in the NRL were certainly promising.

The Kangaroos, of course, are a step up again on that. In the World Cup they conceded barely any points at all, and that was against Samoan and Kiwi sides with a lot more proven quality in the halves.


The depth in key positions is always a problem for Pacific nations – one could write a whole treatise as to why that might be – and it could be the issue this weekend for Samoa. 

Can the Kiwi Ferns challenge the Jillaroos?

The Jillaroos rarely get challenged, but when they do, it’s invariably the Kiwi Ferns who do it. Last year’s World Cup Final wasn’t that close, but the group stage fixture between the two absolutely was and, on another day, could well have brought about a shock.

This year, New Zealand’s women will be super fired up and are, perhaps, even stronger than they were in York in 2022.

Raecene McGregor is back at halfback, but this time has Ash Quinlan beside her and Tyla Nathan-Wong in the 14 jumper, with a huge backline, lead by Mele Hufanga in the centres and NRLW Rookie of the Year Annessa Biddle on the wing.

Up front, they will be more than able to challenge the Jillaroos, with Mya Hill-Moana and Georgia Hale among the toughest around. 

This should be the best game of the weekend in terms of a contest, but that depends on the Kiwi Ferns and their ability to turn potential into performances. 


Last year, they did that once and should have won, resulting in a great game, but a week later when it mattered most, they were battered by an Ali Brigginshaw-inspired Australia.

New Zealand were the last team to defeat Australia, all the way back in 2016, and indeed, you have to go back to 2002 to find the last time the Jillaroos lost to a non-New Zealand team. 

Tamika Upton(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Is Tamika Upton going to live up to the hype?

There’s plenty of things that Tamika Upton has achieved in her rugby league career. Dally M Medalist, double Premiership winner, back to back Karryn Murphy Medals, multiple Origin wins – but no Jillaroos jersey.

She was injured last year, but is on deck this time around and will have all the expectation in the world on her shoulders coming into Saturday teatime’s clash at Townsville.

Born and raised in Rockhampton, this is about as close to a home game as she’ll ever get, and few players can have entered their international debut with quite so much pressure on them to perform.


The Jillaroos are rugby league’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters, a team that you tune in to watch because they’re good, and the opposition don’t matter.

As mentioned about, this time around they’ll be facing their closest competitors in the Kiwi Ferns, and you can guarantee that Upton will have a target on her back.