In our latest edition of ‘Starting XVII’, we focus on 2008 winners New Zealand.
The Kiwis failed to reach the final for the first time since 1995 in the last tournament but have since looked to re-build their team, drafting in several top young talents.
Here’s how we think they’ll shape up next Autumn…
Fullback – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Who else? Maverick fullback Tuivasa-Sheck will be entering his third World Cup aged just 28. He’s still as exciting as when he broke onto the scene back in 2012 with his remarkable footwork and is the first component in what is a deadly Kiwi spine.
Winger – Ken Maumalo and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
Maumalo and Watene-Zelezniak have been mainstays in the New Zealand squad for the past two years. Maumalo’s height makes him a target man for cross-field kicks, while he has a remarkable skill for squeezing the ball down in the corner. Watene-Zelezniak has similar finishing abilities and can also do a solid job at fullback if needed.
Centre – Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Joseph Manu
Nicoll-Klokstad’s breakthrough season with Canberra in 2019 earned him a call-up into Michael Maguire’s squad for games against Australia and Great Britain. Usually a fullback, he demonstrated the same pace and agility that saw him help the Raiders to the NRL Grand Final, and so will likely line up in the centres in the World Cup, whilst also proving backup for Tuivasa-Sheck. Since his debut in 2016, Manu has developed into one of the world’s best centres, showing undoubtable quality in both attack and defence.
Halves – Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson
On their day, these two can be unplayable, especially with Tuivasa-Sheck chiming into the line in support. Marshall and Johnson have both built reputations as New Zealand’s ultimate flair players, possessing ankle-breaking footwork and passing abilities that defy physics. The pair will be crucial if the Kiwis are to mount an attack on the World Cup title.
Props – Jesse Bromwich and Nelson Asofa-Solomona
The Kiwis are renowned for their aggressive, dominant forward pack and will live up to their name with this pair wearing the no.8 and no.10 jerseys. Bromwich is a natural leader and has been consistently impressive at international level for years. Meanwhile, Asofa-Solomona has developed into one of the NRL most talented props, already racking up over 100 appearances for Melbourne at just 24 years-of-age.
Hooker – Brandon Smith
Unlike others in his position, Smith has been lucky enough to have a future rugby league immortal teaching him the ropes. The 24-year-old has spent the past three years as Cameron Smith’s understudy, gradually working his way into Melbourne’s starting 17. He’s a gritty, awkward player and is hard to tackle, while his physique means he can slot into the back row when needed.
Second Rowers – Briton Nikora and Tohu Harris
Two very different players but both good at what they do. Nikora came out of nowhere in 2019, becoming one of Cronulla’s biggest threats with his strong line running and ability to hit a gap at pace. Harris, on the other hand, has been consistently performing at the top level for seven years now. He’s deceptively quick for a back rower and has a great eye for an offload.
Loose Forward – Kevin Proctor
Usually a wide-running forward, Proctor’s size means he’s just as able to play down the middle. He’s bulky and tough to put down, and will play as another leader alongside the likes of Bromwich and Marshall.
Subs – Kodi Nikorima, Leeson Ah Mau, Joseph Tapine and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
There’s a mixture of youth and experience on the bench. Props Leeson Ah Mau and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves are known for their aggression and no-nonsense running, with the latter particularly good at getting under the skin of his opponents. After a hit and miss start to his senior career, Tapine has established himself as an important part of Canberra’s pack and was influential in their journey to the Grand Final last year. Nikorima acts as a bench utility and can fill in at hooker or anywhere in the back line. He’s fast, lively and will be brought on to run at tired forwards.