NRL All Stars Preview: Indigenous v Maori Kiwis

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Indigenous All Stars v Maori Kiwis All Stars Friday 7:50pm at AAMI Park

Revamped concept gets 2019 underway

Returning after a one-year hiatus, the Rugby League All Stars concept has been revamped for the better as the premier Indigenous talent from Australia take on the formidable New Zealand Maori. Meeting for the first time since the Indigenous Dreamtime pulled off a late escape over the New Zealand Maori in an exhibition match played during the 2008 Rugby League World Cup, Melbourne's AAMI Park will host the fixture, having previously been contested on the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Newcastle.

Winning four of the seven matches against the NRL/World All Stars previously, the Indigenous All Stars will be eyeing off the scalp of their Maori counterparts minus the assistance of several long-serving players. Losing Johnathan Thurston and Sam Thaiday to retirement, Greg Inglis, Joel Thompson, Ryan James and Wade Graham through injury, and the deregistration of Ben Barba, coach Laurie Daley is set to field a side lacking in forward experience, but more than compensating in passion for their people. Headlined by Roosters premiership winner Latrell Mitchell, who opted against playing in the World Club Challenge in order to honour his Biripi heritage, eight rookies will take part on Friday night, including Dragons prop Josh Kerr who will become only the second player to play in an All Stars match before debuting in first grade. Averaging 21 points in attack and 15 points in defence over the previous seven clashes, All Stars matches have tended to see the Indigenous team produce big wins, while losses have progressively decreased in margin over the years.

Replacing the NRL/World All Stars in an effort to acknowledge the Maori presence in the NRL, the New Zealand Maori will fancy their chances on Friday night having assembled a squad with just three members yet to feature in test match football. Of those yet to represent the Kiwis or Kangaroos, Bulldogs recruit Corey Harawira-Naera was set to play against England last October before withdrawing through injury, Melbourne utility Jahrome Hughes will be tasked with leading the side around the park in the number seven jersey, while the most exciting young player in the game, Kalyn Ponga, will have the chance to showcase his talents at five-eighth in a move set to have the Indigenous All Stars on high alert. Boasting a monstrous forward pack featuring Kevin Proctor and James Tamou - the two remaining members from the 2008 World Cup exhibition match and 2010 Four Nations warm-up against England - the size at coach Stacey Jones' disposal is set to prove a significant advantage for the New Zealanders.

Last meeting: ‘Welcome to Country' - RLWC, 2008 - Indigenous Dreamtime 34 New Zealand Maori 26

Who to watch: Lining up for his fourth appearance with the Indigenous All Stars, the progression of Blake Ferguson's career has been remarkable to watch over the past decade. Representing the Wiradjuri people in the inaugural fixture while still a teenager with just 20 games to his name, the Eels' marquee signing has endured the highest of highs and lowest of lows since that historic occasion. Rising to representative status only to be deregistered by the NRL for off-field indiscretions, the 28-year-old speedster comes into the new season having achieved his goal of winning a premiership and a career-best haul of 18 tries. Among the elder statesmen of the current squad, Ferguson will be out to do for rookies David Fifita and Kotoni Staggs, as Preston Campbell and Wendell Sailor did back in 2010, by inspiring the next generation of Indigenous players towards a path of success

Tasked with the responsibility of directing play for the Maori, Melbourne utility Jahrome Hughes will have a major bearing on how Friday's match plays out. Enjoying a breakout season in 2018 after managing six appearances in five years with the Titans, Cowboys and Storm previously, the 24-year-old will be out to prove he is more than a back-up option with a starring performance in his first major representative game. Selected in the extended New Zealand squad for last year's tour of England without playing a match, Hughes will relish the forward arsenal at his disposal, along with the quality dummy half service provided by Kiwi representatives Brandon Smith and Danny Levi, yet in spite of those around him, the rising playmaker will need to bring his A-game for an upset to occur.

The favourite: Holding a 4-3 advantage in All Stars fixtures, the Indigenous team has been favoured to finish ahead of their Maori opponents, despite the wealth of talent unavailable through injury and retirement.

My tip: While the Indigenous team have precedent in overcoming a perceived lack of size against their opponents, the Maori forward pack rates among the most formidable ever assembled for an exhibition match. If the likes of Bromwich, Tamou and Blair live up to their reputations, the visitors should emerge as the winners. Maori by 6.

1. Alex Johnston 2. Blake Ferguson 3. Latrell Mitchell 4. James Roberts 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cody Walker 7. Tyrone Roberts 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Nathan Peats 10. Leilani Latu 11. David Fifita 12. Adam Elliot 13. Tyrone Peachey
Interchange: 14. Will Chambers 15. Chris Smith 16. Jesse Ramien 17. Bevan French
Reserves: 18. Kotoni Staggs 19. Josh Kerr 20. Craig Garvey

1. Peta Hiku 2. Dane Gagai 3. Esan Marsters 4. Dean Whare 5. Jordan Kahu 6. Kalyn Ponga 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Brandon Smith 10. James Tamou 11. Kevin Proctor 12. Tohu Harris 13. Adam Blair
Interchange: 14. Danny Levi 15. Brad Takairangi 16. Gerard Beale 17. James Fisher-Harris
Reserves: 18. Corey Harawira-Naera 19. Kenny Bromwich 20. Joseph Tapine

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