Opportunity knocks for Test debutants
With a host of senior players missing from Australia's Four Nations squad, Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens says the next generation of rugby league stars are perfectly poised to stake a claim for a long-term Test jumper.
Sheens named five debutants for Saturday's Four Nations opener against New Zealand and has left the selection door open for his younger brigade to stake a claim for permanent selection.
Josh Mansour, Dylan Walker, Daniel Tupou, Aiden Guerra and Aaron Woods will all make their Test debuts for Australia at Suncorp Stadium while Jason Taumalolo will play his first test for the Kiwi's.
Given that the likes Test regulars Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Darius Boyd, Paul Gallen, Matt Scott, James Tamou, Brett and Josh Morris and NFL convert Jarryd Hayne are all missing from the tournament, Sheens sees the upcoming Four Nations campaign as the perfect platform for his younger players to take ownership over a Kangaroos jersey.
"They've got a window of opportunity in this tournament given that so many of the senior players are out. So it's a great chance to cement a spot or at least put some pressure on the selectors for next year and the year after," Sheens said.
"It'll be interesting to see how many of these kids are there by this time next season. It also broadens the base of players who have got experience that we can choose from.
"I know England and New Zealand are the same – they've been blooding younger players and now it's become our turn. If they do well it's going to stand well for their selection [in future tournaments]."
Australian selectors were forced to name 11 debutants in their 24-man squad for this year's tournament due to injury and suspension, although Sheens isn’t fazed by the lack of experience within his squad.
"There are a lot [of new faces] in the squad but not that many in the starting side," he said.
"There are enough of them to make sure we've had to do a lot of work to make sure we get the language right and making sure the kids know what's going on and what the plays are.
"[But] the senior guys who have been there a number of years fall into it pretty quickly, so the younger ones are who we've been working on, but they've fallen into it pretty quickly too," Sheens said.
Kangaroos skipper Cameron Smith says the onus has now fallen on the senior members of the squad to set the example and lead from the front.
"There's a fair bit of responsibility on the senior players in the group to perform well and I think we all recognise that fact," Smith said.
"The guys that have been around for a number of years now have done a lot of work with the young guys this week. Some players we've had in the side for a number of seasons so I think that will work for us.
"I'm excited to see how they'll go on the weekend and in the next few matches if young guys get the opportunity to play, which Tim has done in tournaments past, hopefully they play well."
Meanwhile New Zealand skipper Simon Mannering still believes the Kangaroos are still the team to beat despite lacking a host of big names.
"There's no point talking about who's not there, it's about who is playing," Mannering said.
"I know they've got guys making their debut but they are seasoned campaigners at NRL level who have played at Origin and are Premiership winners. They are a quality side and we still see them as the number-one team in this competition and it's going to be a great challenge on Saturday."
New Zealand's sole Test debutant will be Cowboys' enforcer Jason Taumalolo after Penrith's Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who was picked to make his Test debut against Australia this Saturday, fractured his ankle in a beach mishap on the Gold Coast on Monday. His spot in the 17 will be taken by Gerard Beale with Brisbane's Josh Hoffman drafted into the squad.
Stephen Kearney said Taumalolo will be a key weapon for his side, with the Kiwi coach declaring that they'll take on Australia through the middle in order to exploit the Aussies' lack of size and depth in the front row.
"He's had a wonderful season, Jason, and these last two months have been the best I've seen from him in a long time," Kearney said.
"He's going to be very important tomorrow night and obviously he can be very damaging with the ball in his hands.
"I think the way he's performed over the course of this year has been outstanding and I'm looking forward to see him play."