Kangaroos' selection headaches: Part 2
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.
After analysing the players in the mix for selection in the pack and at fullback for future Four Nations fixtures, we turn our attention to the backline and hooker.
Arguably the most contentious decision in the three Kangaroos teams Meninga has picked to date is the one to stick with Dragons fullback Josh Dugan at right centre, with Roosters centre Blake Ferguson on the wing. Each man is accustomed to playing in those spots even though they don't regularly feature there at club level but in both cases it could be argued they have rivals for those spots in better form.
On Friday, a strong opening 40 from debutant centre Justin O'Neill saw him easily outpoint an anonymous Dugan in the first half, before the latter produced a wonderful solo try shortly after the break before then unfortunately being forced out of the game after a head clash. O'Neill's quiet second half saw him finish with just 100 metres, nine tackles and one tackle bust for the game.
Greg Inglis will return at left centre and it will probably be in place of O'Neill but the Cowboys three-quarter wouldn't look out of place if he shifted to the right in place of Dugan. By next year's World Cup, a fit-again Will Chambers could easily displace both Dugan and O'Neill.
Ferguson produced one of his best representative games in some time on Friday – probably the best since his powerful 2013 Origin debut. He bagged an early try when he wrapped around to the opposite side of the field from a scrum play and racked up 146 metres and five tackle busts.
But over on the left flank, returning Penrith flanker Josh Mansour was an absolute force of nature. With his piston legs pumping, the man they call 'Sauce' monstered the Bravehearts on kick returns as he powered to match-highs in metres (a whopping 256) and tackle busts (a borderline ridiculous nine breaks) plus two tries.
There is no question Mansour is currently the first winger picked for Australia. Which means the question is – does specialist right-side flanker Valentine Holmes displace Ferguson? Holmes had a wonderful season, topping the try tally for premiers Cronulla before going close to man-of-the-match honours from the wing in his recent Test debut in Perth. Meninga has opted for the Dugan/Ferguson edge in all three of his Tests in charge but if incumbency is to be ignored then Holmes looms as the man perhaps best suited to partner Mansour as the Aussie flankers.
Halves and hooker
This is the one department where Meninga really doesn't have a decision to make.
James Maloney was excellent against Scotland at five-eighth, shaking off an early loose pass to help create four tries while scoring one of his own. He finished with seven goals from 10 attempts despite missing three early attempts. But let's be honest, Cooper Cronk (who was also brilliant against Scotland) and Cowboys magician Johnathan Thurston are the Kangaroos halves, full stop.
The laid-back Maloney won't be stressing about it but at 31, there's a realistic chance he just played his first and last Test with Thurston certain to displace him next week against the Kiwis and a host of young playmaking stars getting 12 months to try and supersede him in World Cup calculations. If that's how it pans out, he certainly made his only Test a good one.
Roosters captain Jake Friend wasn't exactly bad against Scotland but he didn't dominate either. He found himself in the unaccustomed role of watching the first half from the bench and by the time he got on the field with just 40 minutes to try and stage an audition for future selection, the result was already beyond doubt, making his task a tough one.
He looked to be trying too hard early and produced a couple of poor options before working his way into the game. The Kangaroos looked off their game the first 20 minutes he was on the field before regaining their mojo in the closing stages.
Clearly Australian captain Cameron Smith is the only man in contention for the No.9 jersey but if he's forced to miss a Test at any stage in the next 24 months (something he hasn't done since 2009, for the record) then Meninga will want to see a bit more from Friend.