Samoa has been linked to making a play for Kangaroos prop Payne Haas, which could put further strain on Australia’s depleted front row stocks.
Meanwhile, the form of contenders has thrown incumbent playmakers Damien Cook and Daly Cherry-Evan’s starting spots into doubt.
Read on for the key Kangaroos selection headaches.
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FRONT ROW DEPTH TESTED AMID HAAS’ SAMOA LINKS
Australia’s already thin front row stocks could be tested further after Broncos enforcer Payne Haas was linked to the Samoan national side.
Braith Anasta revealed on NRL 360, that Samoa are trying to lure Haas to play for them over the Kangaroos at the World Cup.
“Are Samoa making a play at Payne Haas,” Anasta asked on NRL 360.
The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Carayannis confirmed Samoa’s interest in Haas.
“They are sniffing around Payne Haas,” Carayannis said.
“The officials and teammates and players have spoken to Haas.
“Kangaroos officials are a little bit nervous about Payne Haas, who is eligible for both.
“He has played a couple of Tests for the Kangaroos and if he goes into that Samoan side, they are already star-studded.”
“That is a strong team with Payne Haas,” Anasta said.
“It is strong anyway,” James Hooper added.
If Haas was to choose Samoa over the Kangaroos it would be a massive blow for Mal Meninga’s side.
“That is where the Kangaroos are probably lacking is big men in the middle of the field,” Carayannis said.
“So he is going to be key. He had that shoulder complaint, but he will be right to play in the World Cup.”
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Anasta noted the worrying signs for the Kangaroos in the front row after the defection of two of their stars in Junior Paulo and Josh Papalii.
“What about the props? Paulo, Papali’i,” Anasta said.
“Haas, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Jake Trbojevic.”
Hooper believes Titans captain Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is a certainty for selection.
“Tino Fa’asuamaleaui will be one of the first blokes picked,” Hooper said.
“Surely you have got to have Tino as one of the first middle forwards picked after what he has done in Origin and in big games.”
Carayannis revealed Matt Lodge was curiously left out of the Prime Minister’s side which will play next Sunday.
“The selectors met today and picked a Prime Minister’s squad,” Carayannis said.
“Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is in that, so they will play a warm-up game Sunday week.
“A few other names they are interested in are Tom Flegler from the Broncos when you are talking middles.
“It is a mixture of veterans and youngsters and emerging players. Ben Hunt will play. Daly Cherry-Evans. Zac Lomax and Joseph Suaalii will play and Nat Butcher.
“The interesting one is there is no Matt Lodge in that squad. Patrick Carrigan is not there, but they rested him, so he will be in the World Cup squad.”
Hooper revealed Roosters star Suaalii is set to start for Australia on the wing at the World Cup.
“I reckon Suaalii is definitely on the plane and I reckon he will be one of the starting wingers,” Hooper said.
COOK ON OUTER AMID FIERCE HOOKER BATTLE
Incumbent Kangaroos hooker Damien Cook faces missing out on the World Cup squad given the form of some of the leading contenders.
Cook will vie with Blues teammate Api Koroisau and Queensland duo Ben Hunt and Harry Grant for possibly three spots in the Kangaroos squad.
“Is Damien Cook on the outer with Mal Meninga?” Anasta said.
“There is some really in form No.9s going around at the moment. Hunt and Grant to name a couple. Koroisau, the list goes on. Where does he stand?”
Carayannis believes Cook is currently fourth in the pecking order and may need Souths to win a premiership to get on the plane.
“I don’t know if he is on the outer, but there is a final four and I think Damien Cook is probably in fourth spot at the moment,” Carayannis said.
“It definitely depends on the finals. If Souths go on and win the competition then Damien Cook will be in the squad, but I think Harry Grant is a lock.
“Ben Hunt is only being considered as a hooker. That is two locked in, so do you carry a third?”
Kent believes Hunt is ahead of Cook as a straight out hooker, let alone utility.
“If he is only being considered as a hooker Hunt will still go,” Kent said.
“He will beat Cook for the spot.”
Hooper believes Cook may count himself very unlucky that his three rivals are just playing better, despite his own strong form for Souths.
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“I love Damien Cook and he was outstanding for Souths against the Roosters last week, but I can’t see how he gets in that 24-man World Cup squad when you consider you have got Harry Grant and Ben Hunt is so versatile,” Hooper said.
“And how are you going to ignore Api Koroisau?”
Anasta asked if Grant is a chance to start for Australia.
“Is Grant going better than Koroisau or where do we have those two?” Anasta asked.
Kent believes Grant will go for experience at least.
“Grant will be picked as part of the future,” Kent said.
“He is still very young and if he goes away as the second string hooker, that is going to be seen as a great part of his education.”
“Do Australia have that luxury anymore?” Carayannis asked.
“You’ve got to do it, they all do it,” Kent said.
“They don’t have the luxury they used to have, but surely New Zealand are favourites.”
Hooper, Anasta and Carayanis believe Grant’s Origin form has shown he is up to international level footy.
“You look at what Harry Grant has done in Origin, surely you have got to pick him,” Hooper said.
“He has shown he is a big game player.”
“I think he is an Australian player for the next 10 years,” Anasta said.
“We saw how well the Hunt-Grant combination worked in Origin, so there is no reason why that can’t work again for the Kangaroos,” Carayannis added.
CLEARY’S FORM HEATS UP HALFBACK BATTLE
One of the most contentious decisions for Mal Meninga is who will wear the No.7 jersey out of incumbent Daly Cherry-Evans and Panthers superstar Nathan Cleary.
Cherry-Evans won the Origin series and has always served Australia well, but Cleary’s form may be too good to ignore.
Braith Anasta believes Cleary has done enough to beat DCE to the starting spot.
“The big one is the halfback, Joey Johns has endorsed that they stick with DCE,” Anasta said.
“He said after Origin III and he is the incumbent alongside Munster in the halves. He thinks that is the way to go.
“But if Cleary keeps playing the way that he is and if Cleary can guide his team to another premiership, I think he just gets that jersey. He has earnt it.
“But if he doesn’t win the premiership does he not get the jersey?”
Paul Kent believes Cleary is far and away the best halfback in the game.
“No I don’t think that’s the case, I think Cleary is the best halfback of this generation,” Kent said.
“It is really funny the Australian side, look at Andrew Johns’ career himself. He is an Immortal. Yet he played so much of his rep career at hooker.
“It is almost like you can be too good a halfback that you are easily switched in and out.
“I just think Cleary is just a gun and he is going to be a superstar for the next seven, eight, nine, 10 years.”
“He is a 10-year Australian player and possible captain,” Anasta added.
Kent believes Cleary’s leadership was the final thing he had to tick off to become the complete footballer.
“The last thing that Cleary needed to do and learn as a player was to be that consummate leader and he is doing that,” Kent said.
“He has done that this year. He did it towards the end of last year.
“He is just a full blown footballer at the moment. Why would you not have him in your side?”
James Hooper found Johns’ comments on DCE retaining the No.7 jersey surprising, given Cleary’s form.
“We have all got all the time in the world and respect for Joey, as Kenty said he is an Immortal and personally he is my favourite player of all time,” Hooper said.
“I found that an interesting take the DCE selection because his form fell off a cliff after Origin, where as you look at Cleary and the dominant football that he has played.
“He has only had the one game back, but he just came back in and he was so seamless with his transition back into the game.”
Kent pointed out incumbency should not be a factor, given Australia hasn’t played for three years due to the pandemic and reminded Mal Meninga of his selection philosophy when he came into the role of Australian coach.
“You shouldn’t be paying any attention to incumbents because it has been since 2019 since the last time an Australian team played,” Kent said.
“But beyond that I get loyalty to players and guys that do the job for you, but it is also representative selection and it is a reward.
“Mal Meninga made a point of this when he first took over as the Australian coach. It is a reward for being the best player in your position.
“When he was a player that is what that Australian jersey represented. The fact that in that time in that season you were the best player in your position and you have got an Australian jersey to show for that.
“I think based on that he has to pick Cleary at halfback. Cleary is just dominating the game like very few are at the moment. He came in last week and was magnificent to watch.”
“You have got to pick him,” Anasta added.