Bennett: Fans keen for Gallen in All Stars

With just two days to go for rugby league fans to vote for their favourite players for the NRL All Stars team, coach Wayne Bennett talked to The Sunday Telegraph about some of the players leading the chase to earn a coveted spot in the 2012 Harvey Norman Rugby League All Stars match on February 4. Voting at www.nrl.com/allstars closes on Wednesday (January 18) at 11:59pm (AEDST) and the team will be announced the following day. They will go into camp at Coogee on January 29.

With only two days to go until voting closes for the 2012 NRL All Stars team, early indications of how players are polling shows that the fans have done their homework and they are once again on track to deliver me an exceptional team to work with.

My key advice this year was to select players with some flair who would be prepared to throw the ball around a bit and my sneak preview of the voting so far suggests spectators are in for an exciting third annual Harvey Norman Rugby League All Stars match at Skilled Park on February 4.

For the second year in a row Paul Gallen is proving to be the most popular player with voters. The fans seem to have a love-hate relationship with him … you might not support his team but you have to love the way he plays the game.
Whether he is playing for the Sharks, New South Wales, Australia or the NRL All Stars, what you see is what you get with Paul. He is a 100 per cent bloke who gives his best every time. There is no fuss about him; he doesn’t let anyone down. I enjoy having him in the team. He gets the job done and you know you can count on him.

There are not too many like him. He got a gash in the game last year and refused to come off. He commands huge respect in the teams he plays in.

I see Paul in a tight forward role more so than at lock, which seems to be the direction the voters are taking since Petero Civoniceva (Broncos) and Matt Scott (Cowboys ) were unfortunately ruled out. It is a real shame to lose them. Both were tremendous for us last year.

Paul’s likely props partner is his former Sharks team-mate Kade Snowden who has had a great pre-season with us at the Knights. It helps that they have played together.

I am also really pleased to have Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers) playing in his preferred position of five-eighth for the first time in his NRL All Stars career. His likely combination with the Storm’s Cooper Cronk in the halves will be crucial.

We all know what a wonderful player Cooper Cronk is, with his distribution to the outside backs and he is a good runner of the ball.

Along with the halves, the backline is a pretty balanced group and looks very exciting with a good mix of NSW, Australian, English and New Zealand players in contention.

Jack Reed (Broncos) is polling well for one of the centre spots along with Chris Lawrence (Wests Tigers). While Jack only made his NRL debut last year he showed what a wonderful player he is in the Four Nations for England; while we have all seen what Chris is capable of.

The two wingers leading the voting are as good as you get … Manu Vatuvei (Warriors) and Jason Nightingale (Dragons).

Jason is a great guy to coach and he does his best all the time. He’s just a good footballer; always in the right place at the right time.

He has a great thought process; always knows where the game is and how or what is required from him at a particular point of the game. He is instinctive and a thinker which is a very good combination.

We all enjoy Manu Vatuvei’s style of play too and he is good fun in the camp. Last year he was injured and missed out but he played in the inaugural team.

Josh Dugan (Raiders) heads up a wonderful list of fullbacks we have in the game like Jarryd Hayne (Eels) and Billy Slater (who is unavailable for All Stars again because of injury).

Josh was there last year and played great and the fans have remembered his Man of the Match performance. What a wonderful talent he is.

In the forwards, Parramatta’s Nathan Hindmarsh, like Gallen, is another one of those experienced outstanding players who the fans love and it is good to see him polling well.

Luke Lewis (Panthers) is also in the mix for voters at lock and he is an ideal player for this type of game as a very talented utility.

Following the withdrawal of Sam Burgess, the Mick Crocker and David Taylor have been attracting the Rabbitohs’ votes. I have always been a Mick Crocker fan; he is a good team bloke and I enjoy coaching him.

And David Taylor always brings something to these games. He is a damaging ball carrier and he’s exciting to watch.

Tony Williams is one the leading Sea Eagles’ players with the voters. He is a young star and now a  Premiership and Test player. He is very much in the Dave Taylor mould … with their great speed and agility for their size. People love seeing them play.

For the Bulldogs, Frank Pritchard is polling well which is great for him. He will really enjoy the All Stars week if he gets the opportunity to be involved … but at the end of the day he’s a very good football player and deserves the fans’ votes.

I was also elated to see Brent Tate up there in the voting along with Dallas Johnson. Brent has had a tough time with injury so I am pleased to hear that he made get a chance to come in to the side.

With our shortage in the forwards Jared Waerea-Hargraves is one of the Roosters’ fan favourites, but we may also need someone to cover the halves which could see Mitchell Pearce also considered for an interchange spot.

In terms of my two coach’s picks, my selections will be based around team balance. If I think we have come up short in an area I will pick someone to fill that gap and they will come from the 64-man shortlist.

The one thing about the All Stars which is good now is that as it has grown it is clear among the playing group that a lot of the players want to be part of it. They see it as an important part of their career that they play in an All Stars game. They really want to play in it.

The only threat to the future of the concept would be if the players don’t embrace it … but they do.