The Pacific Championship final told a grim story for Australian rugby league fans; a lop-sided 30-nil scoreline featuring a leaking defence and a lacklustre attack.
The forwards were bullied and the backs were bland. A lack of line breaks, a dearth of dummy-half runs and a general failure of imagination.
Australia has enjoyed a golden period in recent times, but if that capitulation was not a wake-up call, then I do not know what is.
The Kangaroos’ next assignment is in late 2024, assuming the international game does not shoot itself in the foot in the meantime. But I feel it should be a far different line-up to the team that we have just witnessed.
So I want to pull out the old crystal ball and see what team might trot out in the green and gold next year to bring pride back to the jersey.
That should be the end for James Tedesco. Candidates are jumping out of the ground and Tedesco’s pinball effective running game no longer covers his willingness to die with the ball and clog up the attack.
Given we need some attacking genius, surely Reece Walsh comes into the side. You cannot coach pace and it is also a nightmare to defend against. Plus Walsh provides a level of arrogance and niggle that we need after such a passive performance.
Dylan Edwards should be the NSW fullback next year, but for all his sterling capabilities he is simply not a winger. He is also not a generational talent capable of playing anywhere. He was defensively caught out against NZ and did not deserve to be put in that situation.
Valentine Holmes is still a quality player, but does he provide the punch out of the back that a modern winger needs? In another 12 months, he will be firmly in the veteran class.
So queue the return of The Fox? I am not so sure that his inclusion is automatic.
Another obvious candidate is Selwyn Cobbo, but honestly, he seems to have regressed in 2023, with brilliant moments followed by disinterest. He may still be worth investing in, as other candidates are thin on the ground, but he would want to have a very good year.
So let us go with the Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (The Hammer) on one wing and pick your own on the other out of Cobbo and Addo-Carr. Hammer is a top-class fullback and centre, but for team balance, we will place him on the wing. I do admit that that is exactly the mistake made with Edwards, but I think centre/wing is an easier adjustment than fullback. If we want Hammer in the centres, then Campbell Graham can shift to a wing.
Kotoni Staggs just does not fill me with confidence and unfortunately, I do not see Tommy Turbo as being a viable option after yet another set of injuries and Latrell Mitchell is a tad unreliable, although a bona fide game changer.
So, instead, I would go with the NSW pairing of Graham and Bradman Best; speed, defence, offloads. These two have it all.
Dally Cherry-Evans would not have played if Nathan Cleary was fit – so let us just pray the Panthers halfback is fit next year.
DCE has been a great servant but his old legs are letting him down. Cameron Munster’s time is over. The brilliance is too little and too far between these days and he is not the player he was. Incidentally, this is showing why Queensland has been so keen for Kalyn Ponga to succeed in the halves as they are about to fall off a cliff.
Without great confidence, we will go with Nicho Hynes; Cleary is an obvious choice and I think Hynes deserves more time to see what he can produce.
Hynes’ representative career to date has been confined to limited minutes in unfamiliar positions – so, give him a proper chance.
The left-field option is Ezra Mam, but I do not think he is quite ready and Cody Walker is still very top-shelf, but I think his time has unfortunately passed.
Isiah Yeo is a quality forward and a key component of the Panthers’ system, but I just have not seen that dominance at the state or national level. Cameron Murray is a generational talent and should captain this side.
Edge Forwards/Second Row
Liam Martin is continuing to grow into a high-quality edge forward and tries his guts out every week. On the other side, while we have moved Murray to lock.Rueben Cotter does not have the physical attributes to dominate an edge, as the next in line.
Instead, let us acknowledge the 2023 transformation of David Fifita. He is now settled in a role and has added consistency and work rate to his formidable strike power. With quality service, he would dominate at this level.
Payne Haas stays but he has to play more minutes.
His greatest attribute is his motor and the Bronco provides consistent power and rarely misses a tackle – allowing us to rotate for impact elsewhere. He is also fourth in 2023 at NRL level for offloads but did none of that for Australia. Let Haas play his 65 minutes and empower him to be what he can be.
Speaking of impact, we should be starting with Tom Flegler. He is big and slightly unhinged – the Kangaroos just need to tell him to go out there and cause havoc for 20 minutes.
Ben Hunt, God bless him, is done. What a stellar player he has been but Harry Grant has to step up now.
Hunt’s lack of running against the Kiwis was a terrible problem for us, but I still do not see another player up to his level going around in clubland.
Blayke Brailey, Reed Mahoney, Reece Robson – they are all admirable dummy halves – but Grant simply has more.
We need a spark from the bench that can make something happen. Enter the reigning Dally M Player of the Year, Kayln Ponga. He can play virtually anywhere.
He can set up breaks or make his own. He has shown for the Maroons that he can defend in the middle if need be. Ponga has to be in the side and he is more versatile than Walsh; so the Broncos fullback takes the specialist number one position and Ponga is free to make things happen.
Patrick Carrigan is the future. He can punch holes, offload or play the distributor role. He has a mammoth work rate and is a leader.
Tom Gilbert – this kid is a mongrel and he can play in the middle or cover an edge. I cannot imagine the opposition rag-dolling us with Tom Gilbert in the side.
Tino Fa’asuamaleaui. Tino had a bit of a shocker in that final, but he is still quality, still young and can have a definite impact once Flegler runs out of juice.
So, there is my side to take back ascendancy from the Kiwis – let me know your thoughts on who I may have missed.