Kangaroos' selection headaches: Part 1
One of the key takeouts from Australia's comfortable 54-12 win over the Bravehearts in their Four Nations opener was the sublime form of several debutants and other less experienced Test players.
With regular automatic picks like Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Matt Scott, Boyd Cordner, Matt Gillett and Darius Boyd asked to watch on while national coach Mal Meninga had a look at the other players in his squad, the first year coach would have liked what he saw.
While it would be easy – particularly for those that didn't watch the game – to write off the dominance of the rookies as coming against a second-rate opposition, the final scoreline didn't do justice to the determination of the Bravehearts.
Five-eighth Danny Brough was deemed the best player in the UK Super League in 2013 and was a constant threat on Saturday morning (AEDT). Cowboys pair Lachlan Coote and Kane Linnett, former Titan Luke Douglas and Dragons centre Euan Aitken added plenty of starch while Super League regulars like Ryan Brierly, Matty Russell and impressive back row pair Danny Addy and Dale Ferguson ensured the Bravehearts had quality across the park.
Thus, the following conundrums are legitimate ones for Meninga as he searches for the best combination to take the Australian team not just through the current Four Nations tournament but also next year's World Cup down under.
We'll start by looking at the fullback and utility roles, as well as the big men up front.
Penrith skipper Matt Moylan didn't just look at home in green and gold – he owned it. Fresh off helping the Blues to a dead rubber win in Origin III playing five-eighth and the Panthers into the second weekend of the Telstra Premiership finals series, Moylan was the best player on the park.
His gliding runs threatened to scythe through the line with almost every carry and his slick passing game cut Scotland to ribbons as he helped create five of his team's 10 tries. Incumbent Darius Boyd has had a wonderful year at club, Test and Origin level in the absence of Billy Slater and is certain to return to the No.1 jersey for the rest of the tournament. At 29 he is four years older than Moylan but has plenty of good years ahead and will be targeting the Kangaroos fullback role through to at least the end of the World Cup.
Michael Morgan continues to impress off the bench – he came on late in the first half at lock before finishing the game at centre for the concussed Josh Dugan, scoring a late try. He covers more positions than Moylan and has done nothing wrong meaning the 25-year-old Panther may have to continue to bide his time.
Second-game forward Tyson Frizell was another star against Scotland. Slotting into Cordner's left-edge role, the Blues and Dragons back-rower punched holes all through the Scotland defence, racking up three line breaks, 128 metres, six tackle busts and a well-earned try in just over 40 minutes of game time. Backing up from his wonderful debut against the Kiwis in Perth, the one-time Wales international is already making himself close to impossible to leave out of a full-strength Kangaroos team.
Cordner ran close to man-of-the-match honours in Perth and simply has to come back in. With senior men Sam Thaiday and Matt Gillett in the frame it will be very tough to fit all four big-minute players in given the preference for two props and a utility on the bench. On current form Thaiday would arguably be the man to miss out but with a glittering resume at representative level it would take a massive call for Meninga to leave out the long-serving Maroons forward.
Prop and lock is probably the one position where Meninga can continue to rotate players in and out of his 17 to manage workloads. You would imagine props Matt Scott and Aaron Woods and lock Trent Merrin would be the three to start if he were picking a team for the final right now. Merrin has been one of Australia's best in both the past two games, bouncing back powerfully from his curious non-selection in Origin this year. In the absence of long-term locks Corey Parker and Paul Gallen he has all but made the green and gold No.13 jersey his own.
New boy Jake Trbojevic, who started at lock against Scotland, made a wonderful start to his senior rep career with 22 bruising tackles, 136 metres and a try on debut. Bulldogs big man David Klemmer can play at prop or lock and presents a compelling case for a bench spot. Raiders giant Shannon Boyd has looked right at home in his two tests to date.
Given he was only a late addition to the squad after Josh Papalii pulled out, Trbojevic likely has to wait before getting a run in the business end of a major tournament but will be around Kangaroos squads for some time to come and Boyd would probably be the other to miss out if a team was being picked for the final right now.
Look for Part 2 on Sunday as we analyse the chances of players across the backline and at hooker.