Bennett to match passion with power
It's no secret that NRL All Stars coach Wayne Bennett will target what he perceives to be a soft Indigenous All Stars underbelly; the intrigue lies in whether a team of big men is better than a team overflowing with speed and skill.
The two All Stars teams were announced in Brisbane on Monday ahead of the return of the Harvey Norman Rugby League All Stars at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast on February 13 with Bennett opting for a mass of international front-rowers to combat an Indigenous All Stars team boasting some of the finest attacking players the game has ever seen.
While the Indigenous All Stars will rely on three recognised front-rowers in George Rose, Ryan James and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs who played a combined 21 NRL games between them last season, Bennett will unleash powerhouse forwards James Graham, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jesse Bromwich, Paul Gallen, Jason Taumalolo and Dave Taylor in order to win the upper hand.
"I deliberately picked a big pack," Bennett said having had the opportunity to hand-pick his NRL All Stars team for the first time. "David Taylor came in late; we picked Nate Myles but he had to pull out with a pre-season operation and he just isn't where he wants to be and I thought Dave would be a great replacement for him, another 120-kilo guy running at you.
"You don't need a game-plan to work out where we're playing.
"We've got a pretty good team ourselves but if you want to talk about flair they're going to beat us in that department, I won't even try to match them in that department but if we get into a good grind and play well ourselves then we'll make it hard for them."
Indigenous All Stars assistant coach Wendell Sailor playfully ribbed Bennett for the obvious lack of a salary cap in selecting his star-studded team but believes this is the strongest Indigenous team that has been assembled in the five-year history of the event, a view supported by Bennett.
The Indigenous All Stars backline boasts internationals such as Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges and Josh Hoffman as well as Queensland Origin rep Will Chambers, 2012 Dally M medallist Ben Barba and Rabbitohs' premiership winner Alex Johnston.
In the open nature of an All Stars game it is a collection of talent capable of absolutely anything but Sailor knows it will be up to the big boys to do their bit so the backs can turn their platform into a glittering stage.
"They've got a pretty big pack and I think a couple of years ago we had some trouble controlling their forwards," Sailor said. "If you don't win that middle of the ruck it's hard to win any sort of game. We've seen that in the NRL, same with the All Stars.
"We've got some great backs but I'm liking the forwards. Young [Kyle] Turner is there, Jack Wighton, even though he's a back you could throw him in the back row and I think the fans have done a really good job selecting that side. It's the best Indigenous team I've seen through this concept.
"When they sent me through the team I looked at it and there was one spot that hadn't been decided on and I just thought with Andrew Fifita being injured we might be short of one or two big boppers. I think we might be short of one big bopper on the bench but I still think it's a pretty good side."
Although much attention will focus on the quality of the backline that the Indigenous All Stars team boasts, NRL All Stars hooker Michael Ennis insisted there was plenty of football in his side among the players selected to play out wide.
"We've certainly got guys like Dylan Walker who showed his class last year, Matt Moylan's a fabulous young player, throw that in the mix with the experience of [Manu] Vatuvei and we've got a wonderful halves pairing in terms of Pearce and Foran, that's what this concept's about," said Ennis, who made one previous All Stars appearance in 2012.
"You've heard many times those two boys and the friends that they were growing up and they get to this point in their career where their clubs aren't going to let them go anywhere.
"They're both entrenched in their clubs and may never get the opportunity to play [together]. Kieran's playing for New Zealand and Mitch is obviously under the Australian banner, and now they get reunited in an All Stars game, that will bring out the best in those two."