England players might just have boarded the plane to Brisbane last night with a extra spring in their step after examining the Australia squad named earlier in the day for the Four Nations Series.
Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens has been forced to include 10 uncapped players in his 24-man squad after being denied the services, for a variety of reasons, of no fewer than 15 players who might reasonably have been expected to be selected.
This star-studded team of unavailable players would be highly fancied to retain the Kangaroos crown: Billy Slater; Brett Morris, Justin Hodges, Will Hopoate, Darius Boyd; Josh Dugan, Johnathan Thurston; Matt Scott, Nate Myles, James Tamou, Matt Gillett, Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita.
The most eye-catching omissions are Slater and Thurston, who are among seven players who featured in Australia’s Anzac Test win over New Zealand in May.
The number of new faces is the most for an Australian team since the 1995 series against New Zealand at the height of the Super League war.
England coach Steve McNamara has also included a host of uncapped players but it is largely down to choice, with injured trio Ben Westwood, James Roby and Michael McIlorum the only notable absentees, along with the Bath-bound Sam Burgess.
Newcastle Knights’ Sione Mata’utia, the youngest of four brothers who turned 18 in June, is on the verge of becoming the youngest-ever Kangaroo, overtaking Israel Folau, while David Klemmer, from Canterbury Bulldogs, has been called up despite being yet to start an NRL game, having played all his 27 matches from the bench. The Kiwis, too, are under-strength, with Sydney Roosters duo Jared Warea-Hargreaves and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck citing “burn-out” for their withdrawal, while regular hooker Isaac Luke will sit out their opening game against the Kangaroos due to suspension.
The absentees will test the Antipodean’s renowned strength in depth and that old well-versed theory that Australia could field two teams good enough to beat England.
The New Zealanders are accustomed to plugging gaps at this time of the year and Sheens can still boast the likes of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Jarryd Hayne while simply slotting Greg Inglis in at full-back in place of Slater. It still suggests that England may never have a better chance of breaking their Tri or Four Nations duck but McNamara is not taking any solace from the number of withdrawals from the Kangaroos squad.
“I don’t think it makes it any easier at all,” McNamara said. “We’ve lost Sam Burgess and Kevin Sinfield has retired. I think New Zealand are in the same situation. If you look at the Samoa squad, it’s packed with players who have played in a Grand Final or major semi-finals so there are three teams who have got a whole lot of quality in them.”
As assistant coach at Sydney Roosters, McNamara will be familiar with the little-known replacements in the Australian squad and Castleford captain and centre Michael Shenton is also wary of taking anything for granted.
“They’ve got that much talent, they can just replace them with other quality players,” Shenton said.
“You always know the Australians and Kiwis are going to be very strong, especially in their own backyard.
“We know we’ve got a short amount of time together but I know the boys are all pumped to get out there.
“If we can have some quality training sessions, we’ve got a great chance of doing something special down there. Obviously we’ve got a lot of hard work.”