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Kiwis halves caught in
On a cold British night, international rugby league met its destiny when the New Zealand Kiwis thumped the previously unconquerable Kangaroos 24-0, to lift the coveted Tri Nations trophy.
It dawned in the hope of a new era, of expectant crowds consistently getting high class competitive matches at the top level. It breathed hope into the aspiration of international rugby league to be taken very seriously, even ahead of the glamour of Australia's State of Origin.
The Kiwis now face an even bigger challenge. A question of quality, and character, against the odds, yet again. The entire country had been waiting in anticipation of the two sides fighting it out on the hallowed turf o Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium, particularly with the dream halves combination of Les Catalan's Stacey Jones and the Wests Tigers Benji Marshall. However, in a cruel twist of fate, both players were rubbed out with long-term injuries.
The challenge now falls upon new shoulders, we closely explore the options available to Kiwis Coach Brian "Bluey" McClennan.
Lance Hohaia ? Warriors: Lance's career has been punctuated with inconsistencies. He came into first grade with a hiss and a roar, helping the Warriors to a Grand Final appearance in his debut year in 2002. Since then, more often than not he has failed to nail down the position of five eighth at the Warriors, even though he had the honour of working outside the little general, Stacey Jones. However, he received a lifeline in 2005 when he was pushed into the hooking position, a position he seemed to make his own at the Warriors with a succession of incisive performances in an otherwise less than memorable year for the Auckland franchise. As 2006 dawned however, no quicker than feeling assured of himself in first grade, he again found himself on the outer in the hooking role to Grant Rovelli and George Gatis. In his favour, in the limited opportunities he has had to don the number seven jersey, he more often than not has come up trumps.
Jerome Ropati ? Warriors: A player with enormous credentials from his exploits in the Bartercard Cup for Marist. However, he has found the going a lot tougher at NRL level and is yet to truly convert that potential into proven first grade ability. Currently out of the Warriors line up due to a hamstring injury, he looms as an option to play at five eighth for the Kiwis. Jerome plays a simple brand of football, lots of drifting across field to pick up inside runners, and taking it to the line. He is somewhat limited in his kicking game. What goes in his favour though is an exceptional debut test match last year against Australia where he picked up two tries from fullback.
Marcus Perenara ? Warriors: Ropati's former halves team-mate from Marist in the Bartercard Cup, Marcus was seemingly being woven into the Warriors outfit as the logical long term replacement to Stacey Jones. However, no sooner did the Warriors begin highlighting his potential to the public was the news that the Warriors had released Perenara. He ended up joining the Parramatta Eels, but has featured mostly in reserve grade. He made his first grade debut last weekend against the Penrith Panthers in a losing performance. Marcus is rated for his passing, and kicking game, and also his goal-kicking ability and is the brother of former Kiwi Henry Perenara.
Jeremy Smith ? Parramatta Eels: If you were working out a crossword, and stumbled across the question, "Best young half yet to be tried for a lengthy period at NRL level ? five letters" you would instantly write the surname Smith into the boxes. Jeremy is without question an audacious talent. He has great organisational skills, a terrific kicking game, a creative passing game and a strong running game. It is somewhat perplexing that he has not yet debuted for the Eels. Jeremy's inexperience will count against him, but McClennan is renowned as a strong analyst of the game and no doubt Jeremy's ability will be rated on it's merits accordingly.
Billy Ngawini ? Canterbury Bulldogs: Perhaps the most talented young hooker running around, yet to play first grade. Billy put his name firmly in the cross-hairs of the Kiwis selectors after an astounding performance for New Zealand "A" versus the Australian Presidents XIII, a team that featured Mark O'Meley, Willie Mason, Matt Cooper, Trent Barrett, Scott Prince and Ben Creagh. Spectactors left that game with an impression of a very incisive young player who made a lot of line breaks off the back of good go-forward, particularly from Tony Puletua and Awen Guttenbeil. Despite not playing first grade, its clear to all who saw him in action that night that Kiwi representative honours are not too far away for Ngawini.
Nigel Vagana ? Cronulla Sharks: Word on the street's of the Shire is Vagana will be a late inclusion versus the Wests Tigers. Nigel is a proven and established NRL star, particularly following his try scoring exploits at the Bulldogs, and Auckland Warriors. He has not quite reached the same heights of consistency at the Cronulla Sharks, but gained some form when being promoted into a makeshift five eighth role at the end of last year. He was the number six outside Stacey Jones in last years triumph, and also donned the jumper in a memorable test victory at North Harbour Stadium in 2003 outside Thomas Leuluai. Kicking game is severely limited, but can make a break on his own or from supporting a strong offload up the centre of the ruck.
Thomas Leuluai ? London Harlequins: Form is hard to read. Played too basic a gameplan while at the Warriors after being given countless chances to establish himself, albeit at a young age. Is the son of former Kiwis legend James Leuluai. Kicking game is quite poor for a recognised halfback, often finding the recipient on the full with limited kicking range a problem also. Tends to play a short passing game, that can restrict the outside backs and create a target for his own forwards. Has been up and down for Harlequins this year. Two things will count against Thomas, the considerations of travel, and the inconsistent form of Harlequins.
Sione Faumuina ? Warriors: Has moved around at the Auckland franchise, from being a bench man, to playing lock forward, to play centre and now occupying the five eighth position. Was in scintillating form against Manly last week, but suffered from the same trait as a lot of young inexperienced halves ? the lack of knowledge as to how to skin a cat. Created numerous opportunities but was unfamiliar with how to turn the knife and make the decisive tries needed to try and run down the Sea-Eagles. Kicking game is also quite limited. Also counting against Sione will be his decision to turn down the Kiwis jumper last year in a bid to play in the English Super League Finals series, and to get a full off-season under coach Ivan Cleary to hone his craft to play five eighth at the Warriors.
Brent Webb ? Warriors: Plays a semi-fullback, semi-five eighth role at the Warriors as it is, often chiming into the line to try and create an opportunity or put a long kick in. Long kicks can be powerful, but inaccurate. Doubtful to be seriously considered as a halves option purely on the proviso that there seems no logical replacement at fullback, which as Nigel Vagana showed in his appearance there a short while ago as a substitute fullback that it can be a recipe for disaster. Particularly when going against the awesome kicking game of Andrew Johns.
Also mentioned in some circles have been the names of Sonny-Bill Williams, Tevita Latu and David Faiumu, however these are probably not high percentage options at this stage. Faiumu will rotate at hooker, possibly with Latu, while Williams is a certainty to lock the scrum should he be available for the Kiwis.
Whichever way Brian McClennan goes, there will be no doubt that they will be up against it facing off against the likely combination of Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer. This will be John's last test match, and there is no doubt whatsoever the rest of the team will be looking to ensure his last test is a memorable one, as well as making sure Ricky Stuart's first test is successful. Johns is in unbelievable form currently, his club team the Knights are red hot with him in the pilots seat and there appears to be nothing surer that he will carry that club form into his final test match. There is however absolutely no doubt that whomever McClennan selects as his halves will be given a strong game plan, and a strong sense of belief. They will believe they are champions, and they will believe in the honour bestowed upon them to be wearing the Kiwis jumper. That is the makeshift of McClennan's coaching, which has served him well at Bartercard Cup level, and now, famously, test match level as well.
In my opinion, the best combination out of that lot is Lance Hohaia at halfback and Jeremy Smith at five eighth. It is fraught with danger, given neither are currently in their club's top seventeen, but as Olsen Filipaina has shown, Kiwi pride can overcome those odds.