His selection as one of Australia’s starting props for Sunday’s Test against New Zealand came as quite a shock but Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens says veteran forward Paul Gallen will have to get used to playing his representative football in the front row.
Impressed by Gallen’s performances up front for New South Wales during this year’s State of Origin series and with New Zealand building much of their recent success around the brilliance of their little men, Sheens believes that the days of dominating opponents with a monster forward pack are numbered, with Gallen likely to fill the void well into the future.
“The selectors in particular are very keen on seeing Paul’s representative career head to the front row,” the Australian coach told NRL.com. “I don’t know whether Paul feels the same but 13 or 8 or 10, Paul will play anywhere with an Australian jumper.
“Obviously his go-forward is very good and his work rate is very high but to be able to handle the Kiwis, who play guys like [Adam] Blair and [Jeremy] Smith and [Greg] Eastwood when he is fit – they don’t always play the real big men anymore.
“It’s more dummy-half running and strong back-rowers with good footwork playing front row. It is an issue for the big men in the game.”
Gallen’s presence in the No.8 jumper means that the Kangaroos head into Sunday’s Test in Newcastle with just three specialist front-rowers, with Matthew Scott the other starting prop and Keith Galloway and David Shillington coming off the bench.
While Gallen is likely to play big minutes as a result, Sheens said he would also rely on the back-rowers Sam Thaiday, Luke Lewis and Anthony Watmough to pick up some of the slack.
“I still believe that when you’ve got a bit of ball that the big men are good value for you and you need to have them in the team but you’re probably not going to have them playing side by side anymore against a side that works very, very well from dummy-half,” he said.
“The Kiwis have a young No.9 and wingers that run from dummy-half to back them up. They are very much that sort of team so we’ll have to answer that with defenders that have a bit of footwork. We’ll play the big men in shorter spells and not side by side.”
The next month looms as a huge challenge for the Australians, who are seeing their standing as the dominant side on the planet threatened for the first time in more than three decades by a New Zealand outfit that currently holds both the World Cup and Four Nations trophies.
And Sheens knows it won’t be getting any easier with the emergence of star playmakers Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson for the Kiwis and the impending retirement of Kangaroos legend Darren Lockyer after this year’s Four Nations.
“More and more with young Johnson, Marshall and Foran in the halves these days as their options, and Darren Lockyer retiring, the challenge for Australia is to match them in those areas from now on,” he said.
“The other thing we’re seeing is that more and more kids are showing their allegiances to the Kiwis so again, Australia just can’t take things for granted. The stronger they get the more they are keen to play for their native country in New Zealand so that leaves the challenge for us to make sure we’ve got the right mix.”
Sheens also pointed to England as a growing threat, given the change of selection policy that has seen Kiwi-born Rangi Chase and NRL stars Chris Heighington and Jack Reed selected in their Four Nations squad because of family links to the Old Dart.
“They’ve now decided to do what they do in Rugby in order to strengthen their side and the reason is that they want to win something,” Sheens said.
“It’s been a while since they won a major tournament in rugby league and they want to do it no matter what.
“So we can’t take anything away from England either. It’s a big challenge for us so we need to be ready for what’s coming.”