Up to seven newcomers would receive Australian jerseys if a Kangaroos side was chosen now, with Kurt Capewell and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui forcing their way into contention after Queensland’s opening State of Origin win.
Australia’s last Test was a 16-12 loss to Tonga at Eden Park 12 months ago and with this year’s Ashes series against England cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Origin form will carry significant weight in determining the make-up of the Kangaroos squad for the 2021 World Cup.
The Mal Meninga-coached Kangaroos have played just four Tests since winning the 2017 World Cup final – winning two and losing two – and there has been a huge turnover of players, with Tyson Frizell, Dane Gagai and Valentine Holmes likely to be the only survivors if a Test team was named now.
Meninga and Kangaroos selectors, Laurie Daley and Darren Lockyer, will announce an Australian Merit Team on NRL.com on November 24, after the Ampol State of Origin series, as they have done in the past when the series was played mid-season.
Only three Maroons - Daly Cherry-Evans, Cameron Munster and Josh Papalii - are incumbent Australian players but Queenslanders would be likely to dominate the Kangaroos line-up if it were selected this week.
Match: Tonga Invitational v Australia
Round 3 -
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Fullback for Tonga Invitational is number 1 Will HopoateFullback for Australia is number 1 James Tedesco
Winger for Tonga Invitational is number 2 David Fusitu'aWinger for Australia is number 2 Josh Addo-Carr
Centre for Tonga Invitational is number 3 Michael JenningsCentre for Australia is number 3 Latrell Mitchell
Centre for Tonga Invitational is number 4 Konrad HurrellCentre for Australia is number 4 Jack Wighton
Winger for Tonga Invitational is number 5 Daniel TupouWinger for Australia is number 5 Nick Cotric
Five-Eighth for Tonga Invitational is number 6 Tuimoala LoloheaFive-Eighth for Australia is number 6 Cameron Munster
Halfback for Tonga Invitational is number 21 Kotoni StaggsHalfback for Australia is number 7 Daly Cherry-Evans
Prop for Tonga Invitational is number 10 Siosiua TaukeiahoProp for Australia is number 8 Josh Papalii
Hooker for Tonga Invitational is number 9 Siliva HaviliHooker for Australia is number 9 Damien Cook
Prop for Tonga Invitational is number 15 Addin Fonua-BlakeProp for Australia is number 10 David Klemmer
2nd Row for Tonga Invitational is number 11 Ben Murdoch-Masila2nd Row for Australia is number 11 Boyd Cordner
2nd Row for Tonga Invitational is number 12 Manu Ma'u2nd Row for Australia is number 12 Tyson Frizell
Lock for Tonga Invitational is number 13 Jason TaumaloloLock for Australia is number 13 Jake Trbojevic
Interchange for Tonga Invitational is number 8 Andrew FifitaInterchange for Australia is number 14 Cameron Murray
Interchange for Tonga Invitational is number 14 Sione KatoaInterchange for Australia is number 15 Payne Haas
Interchange for Tonga Invitational is number 19 Tevita Pangai JuniorInterchange for Australia is number 16 Paul Vaughan
Interchange for Tonga Invitational is number 20 Joe OfahengaueInterchange for Australia is number 17 Wade Graham
- Referee: Gerard Sutton
- Touch Judge: Nick Beashel
- Touch Judge: Dave Munro
- Senior Review Official: Jared Maxwell
Besides Capewell and Fa’asuamaleaui, who starred on debut in last Wednesday night’s 18-14 defeat of NSW, as well as Gagai, Felise Kaufusi and Ben Hunt made strong cases for a Kangaroos recall, while Holmes would also come under consideration after missing Origin I due to suspension.
With Blues and Kangaroos captain Boyd Cordner ruled out for the remainder of the Origin series and doubts about his return next season after a series of head knocks, Cherry-Evans would be expected to take over as skipper.
The Queensland and Manly captain was man of the match in last week’s series opener after he and Munster took control in the second half to guide a Maroons team regarded as the biggest Origin underdogs since 1995 to an upset victory.
Cameron Murray was also injured in Adelaide, while fellow NSW forwards David Klemmer, Wade Graham and Paul Vaughan were overlooked for the 27-man squad and winger Nick Cotric has not been selected for Origin II.
Latrell Mitchell played in the centres for Australia against New Zealand and Tonga at the end of last season but was unavailable for NSW selection after undergoing surgery for a ruptured hamstring tendon in August.
Queensland trio David Fifita, Kalyn Ponga and Michael Morgan are also sidelined by injury, along with NSW’s Tom Trbojevic, Victor Radley and Blake Ferguson.
Meninga is a strong believer in players having to earn their way into the Australian team with consistent performances at the highest level but Penrith and NSW halfback Nathan Cleary would have been in strong consideration if a Kangaroos team had been chosen at the end of the season.
Cleary and Panthers teammates Stephen Crichton and Isaah Yeo were named in the Dally M team of the year for their form during the season with the minor premiers, who won 17 consecutive matches before the grand final.
Ryan Papenhuyzen would almost certainly have been rewarded for his Clive Churchill Medal-winning performance in Melbourne’s 26-20 grand final triumph, while Meninga showed loyalty to Klemmer last season when he was on the outer with NSW.
James Tedesco will captain NSW for the first time in Origin II and is considered one of the best players in the NRL.
However, there are no shortage of contenders for the Australian No.1 jersey, including Trbojevic, Papenhuyzen, Mitchell, Ponga and AJ Brimson, who was impressive on debut for Queensland last week.
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Josh Addo-Carr is a certainty and demonstrated in Origin I that he is equally comfortable playing on the left wing as the right. However, the other wing spot is wide open and depends largely on whether Gagai is selected at centre.
Holmes was a regular member of the Australian team on the wing before taking a year away from the NRL to try his hand at NFL and his return this season is likely to see him back in a green-and-gold jersey at the World Cup.
Teenage Maroons rookie Xavier Coates was impressive playing outside Gagai in Adelaide, while Ferguson and Tupou would be other contenders – although the latter is expected to commit to Tonga for the World Cup.
None of the centres in Origin I play there each week in the NRL but Wighton is usually the first chosen at representative level and while even Wayne Bennett considers Gagai better suited to the wing he has proved equally effective in either position.
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Capewell played a key role in Queensland’s second half turn-around during Origin I but he is regarded more as a second-rower who can play centre than the other way around and therefore makes an ideal interchange player.
Trbojevic and Mitchell would be expected to be in the World Cup squad if fit.
With NSW coach Brad Fittler dropping Luke Keary and recalling Cody Walker for Origin II, there is little doubt Munster would remain the first-choice Test five-eighth but Wighton was the Dally M Medallist after starring for Canberra in the No.6 jersey.
Cleary was arguably the best player in the NRL this season and his peers voted the Penrith playmaker the 2020 RLPA Players' Champion but Cherry-Evans has been a member of Kangaroos squads since 2011 and is now firmly entrenched as the Queensland and Australian halfback.
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The decision to omit Klemmer from NSW’s 27-man squad was a massive shock but Newcastle front-row partner Daniel Saifiti was the Blues' best forward in Adelaide and ran 154 metres with the ball.
Josh Papalii stepped up for Canberra this season after a series of injuries to key forwards and helped lead the Raiders to within one win of back-to-back grand finals to confirm his standing as the best prop in the game.
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Damien Cook was under pressure from Penrith’s Api Koroisau to retain his NSW No.9 spot but hit top form towards the end of the NRL season with South Sydney and was arguably the Blues player that troubled Queensland’s defence the most in Origin I.
Queensland’s Jake Friend made a game high 54 tackles – two more than Cook – but rookie Harry Grant is considered their long-term hooker.
With Cordner out, Frizell becomes the most experienced representative forward and he has been a mainstay of Test and Origin teams since 2016.
Kaufusi played for the Kangaroos at the 2017 World Cup but Cordner and Frizell were selected ahead of him for the final.
There aren’t many other options as Angus Crichton was the only other specialist edge back-rower in the NSW squad and Jaydn Su’A will start in the Queensland second row for the first time in Origin II.
Blues v Maroons - Origin II
The loss of Murray midway through the first half and time Cordner spent off the field undergoing a HIA prevented Trbojevic from performing the role of ball-playing forward for which he is best suited but the Manly star still performed solidly for the Blues and finished with 52 tackles.
With Murray, Yeo and Dale Finucane, NSW are blessed for quality locks.
Hunt was Queensland’s player of the series last year after playing all three matches at hooker but is also considered the next-choice halfback or five-eighth if Cherry-Evans or Munster were injured and his versatility makes him an ideal bench utility.
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Haas is just 20 but is already considered one of the best props in the game and can play long minutes if necessary, while maintaining a high work rate in attack and defence.
Capewell’s versatility is also well suited for a bench role but David Fifita is more likely to play that role for Australia at the World Cup if he is fit.
Fa'asuamaleaui was a member of the Junior Kangaroos team that thrashed France in Wollongong last year and like Fifita, whom he will play alongside with the Titans next season, he has been earmarked for higher honours.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.