Mal Meninga says he believes in international rugby league and wants to put pride back into the Kangaroos jumper, but he has a funny way of showing it.
In Meninga’s first game as Australia coach his team beat a second-string Kiwi side 16-0 in Newcastle. No RTS, Kieran Foran, Isaac Luke, Manu Vautvei, Tui Lolohea, Dean Whare etc for the New Zealand, no worries.
It was a pretty dire contest. The Kiwis offered nothing in attack, which is hard to when you are missing so much quality, and the Kangaroos went through the motions.
And Mal has to take some of the blame for that.
The former Canberra centre was a legend as a player and one of the Kangaroos’ greatest-ever. Even broken arms couldn’t stop the burly outside back.
But his record as a coach is, well, mixed. At the Raiders he had a 53 per cent win rate and they never made a Grand Final or won a trophy.
In State of Origin he has led Queensland to nine series wins in 10 years. That’s impressive stuff. But it’s arguable how much coaching players like JT, Lockyer, Cronk, Slater, GI, Hodges, Petereo and the rest actually need at that level.
That Maroons side might be the most talented footy team ever, up there with the 1982 Invincibles.
Champions all, and it’s up for debate how much influence Meninga has had in those short Origin weeks and limited preparation. Certainly he is good at man-management and motivation. But he has never been a deep thinker of the game in the Jack Gibson/Gus Gould/Bob Fulton/Warren Ryan mould.
His short-lived political career, Super League switch in the mid 1990s and controversial ‘rats and filth’ newspaper column show he is not the most considered individal.
Consider the ageing nature of the Australian team, and with a World Cup just 18 months away, a real opportunity was missed to blood some new, fresh talent.
Meninga went with the tried and tested – Boyd, GI, JT, Cronk, Smith, Scott, Gallen, Parker, Thaiday. Great layers who have been there and done it before.
And it showed. There was no X-factor, no new enthusiasm or experimental edge.
He went for a fullback in the centres, a guy who plays his club football at fullback in the centres as well, and put a centre on the wing. Not to mention a lock at prop.
He also picked a Fijian – Semi Radradra – which did more to harm international rugby league than anything else in recent memory. A hugely damaging blow both to the Bati and Australia‘s reputation. For a so-called ‘internationalist’, it was shattering to see.
To bring pride back into the national jersey, how did you do that by selecting a man who has lived in the country for three years? How does that make born and raised Australians like Corey Oates and Josh Mansour feel? How does it make Aussie fans feel? Are they expected to be excited to see a Fijian in the green and gold? Or guilty?
Eleven of the Aussie team that played at Hunter Stadium on Friday night won the World Cup at Old Trafford in 2013. Billy Slater would have played last weekend if he wasn’t injured, Jarryd Hayne if he wasn’t in the NFL.
Most of these players are on the wrong side of 30. Slater will be 33, Thurston 34, Cronk 33, Scott 31, Smith 33, Thaiday 31, Parker 35 and Gallen 35 by the time the World Cup comes around next November.
Meninga is renowed for his loyatly. Incumbency is a big thing for him.
But the Kangaroos need to rejuvenate their side and build for the future. Form is a big pointer and most of the team that played in Newcastle are in great form right now.
But will that be the same case in a year or so’s time? We know what these players can produce in a rep jumper. In a game that was not a final, surely it was worth seeing how a new young gun would go in the Test arena?
What if Thurston-Cronk-Smith-Inglis-Parker etc picked up serious injuries at World Cup time?
Then Meninga will be forced to throw in new blood hastily, without giving them an opportunity to find their feet or their best chance to succeed.
Tim Sheens did that with Sione Mata’utia in 2014 and looked how that turned out. The Kangaroos lost the Four Nations and the Newcastle Knight’s promising career got sidetracked for a few seasons.
Australia need the right blend of youth and experience, of old hard heads and young bucks.
New Zealand have a golden generation of talent right now and more depth than they have ever had. England have a number of world-class players – James Graham, Sam Burgess – and more talent in the NRL than ever before.
The Josh Hodgsons, Elliot Whiteheads and Mike Coopers play against the Thurstons and Smiths every week and that fear factor of the Aussies, that affected so many England and Great Britain teams in the past, is long gone.
Both countries will be far from pushovers for Australia in 2017 and much stronger than they were in 2013.
If Meninga continues down this conservative path, focusing only on the next match and not planning for the big trophies ahead, then the Kangaroos’ lean years on the internatonal stage might only be starting, not ending.