Australian coach Tim Sheens insists he’s unconcerned by the slow start to the NRL season from Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk ahead of Friday’s Test against New Zealand.
Sheens will name his team on Sunday for the annual mid-year encounter with the Kiwis at Allianz Stadium and there are likely to be few surprises.
But with Melbourne experiencing their slowest start to a season since 2005, questions have been raised about the form of Slater and Cronk for the first time.
The Storm sit in 11th spot on the ladder after losing to the Warriors on Friday – their fourth defeat in five games.
Slater has just one try this season and, on occasions, has looked less than assured under the high ball.
Halfback Cronk has also had a sluggish start and under pressure to keep his spot from Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans.
There’s no question of the Storm duo being axed, but Sheens admits the form of Cherry-Evans has given the selectors food for thought about promoting him from the bench.
“I wouldn’t say that they are in poor form and the squad will be built around the boys that played last year,” Sheens told AAP.
“Saying players are out of form is very subjective, as what some people think of form is different to others.
“I’ve said before that Daly is keeping Cooper honest. That isn’t to say either of them is out on the street.”
Long-time incumbent centre Justin Hodges missed the Rugby League World Cup due to a ruptured achilles, but is back playing for Brisbane.
However, Parramatta’s Jarryd Hayne impressed as his replacement and taken that form into the new season with the Eels.
Sheens admits it’s the position that will be most debated by the selectors.
Should Hayne get the nod, then it would almost certainly bring the curtain down on Hodges’ stellar international career.
“Obviously, the incumbent was Justin Hodges who was unavailable due to injury at the World Cup but now he’s back, so there is something to consider,” Sheens said.
“Jarryd played well in the final, but there’s still some thought going into it. It’s something I’ll have to sit down with the selectors and discuss.”
Sam Thaiday is a doubt having missed Brisbane’s past two encounters with a calf injury but Sheens says the experienced back-rower will be given every opportunity to prove his fitness.
“We’ll obviously have to assess him medically, as he hasn’t played for two games,” he said.
“If Sam was available to play for his club next weekend, then he’d be available to play for Australia.
“But we may select him and then assess him during the week in camp.”
Regular utility Luke Lewis’ absence due to a shoulder injury will open the door for Brisbane’s Matt Gillett to make his international debut.
“He has been 18th man for me before, and been one of the form players this season,” Sheens said.
“He can play back-row, centre and at five-eighth before and that makes him a real option for us in the utility role.”
Probable squad: Billy Slater, Darius Boyd, Greg Inglis, Jarryd Hayne, Brett Morris, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, James Tamou, Cameron Smith, Matt Scott, Sam Thaiday, Greg Bird, Paul Gallen. Interchange: Daly Cherry-Evans, Andrew Fifita, Matt Gillett, Corey Parker. 18th man: Josh Papalii.