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New Zealand coach Michael Maguire will usher in a new era of Kiwi playmakers this Saturday against Mate Ma’a Tonga, with his young halves pairing signalling a changing of the guard in the black jersey.

Parramatta five-eighth Dylan Brown will make his Test debut at Mount Smart Stadium alongside Melbourne star Jahrome Hughes, who will be playing his fourth match for New Zealand.

It is just the second time since 2015 that the Kiwis have played a Test without either Kieran Foran or Shaun Johnson in their starting halves, with the latter left out of the squad and Foran set to play as a utility off the bench.

Dynamic Roosters centre Joseph Manu will also get first crack at the No.1 jersey left vacant by the departure of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, following a handful of eye-catching performances in the position at NRL level across the last couple of seasons.

“It is a new generation coming through and they have gelled well together this week,” Maguire said.

“I think Jahrome’s form at the moment, over the last two or three years, he is a real mainstay of his team back in club land. It was an easy choice that one — the way he has been really leading the Melbourne Storm around and playing the way he has been, he’s been very impressive.

“It’s the first for Dylan coming into the team which is very exciting.

The Kiwis squad to face Tonga on Saturday has a number of fresh faces.
The Kiwis squad to face Tonga on Saturday has a number of fresh faces. ©NRL Photos

“Joey Manu is at fullback (too), so we have got a couple of changes to the spine we have had in the past.

“With the game being sidelined for two years we are also seeing new guys like Griffin Neame, Jordan Riki and Scott Sorensen coming through (in our wider squad).

Kiwis coach Michael Maguire ahead of his side's Test against Tonga.
Kiwis coach Michael Maguire ahead of his side's Test against Tonga. ©Photosport

“This week is very important. It gives these guys a chance to show themselves ahead of where we are going to go.”

The emergence of Hughes – who in 12 NRL games this year has nine tries and 10 try assists – is welcome news for the Kiwis, who currently have a level of depth in their playmaking ranks which the country hasn’t enjoyed for several years. 

So impressed is Kiwis skipper Jesse Bromwich by the form of Hughes, he labelled him Melbourne’s best player across the last two seasons.

“That’s saying something considering some of the guys that have been playing there,” Bromwich said.

“I think the biggest improvement has been his off-field leadership.

“I think if I look at the (New Zealand) team on paper it’s a really strong team. One of the stronger ones I have been a part of.

“I think everything is heading in the right direction.”

Jahrome Hughes is all class

After taking the Kiwis job in 2018, following their disastrous quarter-final exit at the 2017 World Cup, Maguire had been making progress with the squad prior to the pandemic and guided them to a series victory over Great Britain in 2019.

Over the past two and half years without international activity, Maguire made sure to keep regular contact with both existing squad members and those likely to be on the radar in the future.

“Zoom has been big for us and because I have been in club land (with Wests Tigers) I have been able to cross paths with players and check in and see how they are going,” Maguire said.

The four Kiwis debutants who will feature against Tonga in Saturday's Test.
The four Kiwis debutants who will feature against Tonga in Saturday's Test. ©Photosport

“There were times when you’d cross paths and check in and see how the family is going. You learn a lot more about the deeper part of the player when you are travelling around the world with them, not only about their close family but wider family too.”

Former New Zealand captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak has also been left out of the starting 17 for the Test against Tonga, with Raiders wing Jordan Rapana and Test rookie Ronaldo Mulitalo, who has 10 tries for Cronulla this year, preferred by Maguire.

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