Silence deafening from Kiwis stars ahead of Denver Test
South Sydney prop Tom Burgess recently told reporters at Redfern Oval that he was sick of being asked about State of Origin and preferred to talk about England's Test against New Zealand on June 24 at Mile High Stadium in Denver.
"It's exciting, I am looking forward to going over there," Burgess said after talking up his Rabbitohs teammates in the Origin teams. "I want to go and play the game, I think it is great for the international game to showcase what we have as a code in America."
St George Illawarra front rower James Graham echoed similar sentiments when he told NRL.com: "I want to see the international game at the forefront of our game and this Test for us English lads and the Kiwi boys has the potential to be our State of Origin".
NRL-based English players, including Sam Burgess, George Burgess, Gareth Widdop and Elliott Whitehead, even went as far as issuing a statement at the height of debate over the Denver Test about their desire to represent England.
In contrast, the silence from many New Zealand players has been almost deafening.
While some, such as former captain Jesse Bromwich, have been enthusiastic and passionate about the opportunity to again pull on the Kiwis jersey during private conversations with new coach Michael Maguire, publicly the players have been sending mixed signals.
Maguire is likely to select a new-look New Zealand team for his first Test in charge and those players will have the opportunity to push for places in the end-of-season Test against Australia and three-Test series against England.
Injuries to Bromwich (hamstring), Canberra winger Jordan Rapana (hamstring) and Canterbury five-eighth Kieran Foran (toe) leave Maguire with little choice other than to blood new talent or revive Test careers.
Wests Tigers veteran Benji Marshall (calf) is also now out of the reckoning, while there are doubts about Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson and fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck due to niggling injuries.
After the disappointment of the World Cup, in which the Kiwis were eliminated at the quarter-final stage by Fiji and by Tonga in their final pool match, New Zealand Rugby League is undergoing a rebuilding phase – on and off the field.
The NZRL has a new chairman in Reon Edwards, who took over the role on the eve of the World Cup, a recently appointed CEO Greg Peters, who has an extensive rugby union background, and a new coach in Maguire.
Their focus is on the 2021 World Cup and restoring pride in the Kiwis jersey after last year's cocaine incident involving Bromwich and Kevin Proctor in Canberra, and the failed World Cup campaign.
Losses to Australia in Perth, London and Liverpool and a draw with Scotland during the 2016 Four Nations saw New Zealand surrender the RLIF's No.1 ranking after two years at the top and Maguire wants to win it back.
The campaign to do so begins in Denver, which is an officially sanctioned Test by the RLIF, with the Kiwis ranking as the No.2 nation on the line against England.
The NZRL is also viewing the Denver Test as an opportunity to grow revenue, which is limited by where and how often the Kiwis play.
New Zealand and England have agreed to play an annual fixture in Denver for the next three years to build momentum for the 2025 World Cup in North America.
Kiwis team doctor Greg MacLeod and high-performance coach Donny Singe recently made a presentation to NRL club about the measures being implemented for player welfare and recovery before, during and after the Test.
However, there are still concerns that some New Zealand players feel pressured by their clubs not to play because of their ability to back up after returning from Denver on Tuesday, June 26.
England duo Graham and Widdop would be the worst affected as the Dragons play Parramatta on Thursday night but the players point out that NSW and Queensland players are stood down the weekend before State of Origin and are expected to back up within 48 hours of Origin.
"We aren't missing any games but the Origin boys miss games so there's no dramas there," Burgess said.
"We are not missing any games, we travel a lot with Souths - we go to Perth and we go to Cairns for home games - so we don't mind travelling," Burgess said.
"You sometimes have to look at the bigger picture and we want to grow the game internationally. I think the NRL is in a good state at the moment so we need to look at other areas to grow the game and this is a good step forward.
"Super League are doing some good things, they are looking to get the Magic Weekend in New York. If this goes well they will want to do more things over there."
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRL.com or the NRL.