Naiqama the new ‘sheik of freakish’
Wests Tigers winger Kevin Naiqama – an off-season bargain buy from Penrith – has guaranteed his place on NRL highlight reels for perpetuity with an inspired, seemingly impossible try assist to deliver the first four-pointer of his side’s emphatic 38-14 victory over Canterbury on a platter for James Tedesco.
Naiqama’s dead-ball line-defying acrobatics immediately drew comparisons with Greg Inglis’ unforgettable effort to set up a try for Mark Gasnier in the 2008 Centenary Test … but anyone who puts the two in the same ballpark is looking at the world through GI-tinted glasses – Naiqama’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flick pass at full pace is the best we’ve ever seen.
The 25-year-old has been unable to nail down a permanent first-grade spot in previous stints with Newcastle and Penrith, making just 23 NRL appearances before 2015, but he has found his niche on the Tigers’ flank. Meanwhile, his Fresh Prince of Bel Air hairstyle and penchant for the spectacular – underlined by another freakish put-down from a grubber against the Bulldogs – has rendered Naiqama an instant cult hero.
The premiership’s new breed astounded throughout the weekend with their mind-blowing talents. Naiqama’s heroics were followed by Warriors fullback Tuimoala Lolohea’s magnificent cover tackle on a runaway David Mead, Broncos utility Kodi Nikorima’s break and Marshall-esque flick for Anthony Milford to score, and Sharks fullback Valentine Holmes’ astonishing aerial put-down.
Bizarre backline picks threaten Kangaroos’ No.1 billing
Australia has not lost to New Zealand in a mid-season Test since 1998, but that record – and the Kangaroos’ place atop the world rankings – is in danger thanks to a baffling backline selection policy by long-serving Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens and his panel ahead of Friday’s Anzac Test.
In the centres, incumbents and proven big-match performers Michael Jennings and Dylan Walker, along with Brisbane veteran Justin Hodges – a virtual walk-up start for rep selection when injuries have allowed since 2006 – have been passed over in favour of Melbourne debutant Will Chambers, who will partner Greg Inglis.
Jennings has joined the squad as insurance if Billy Slater pulls out, which would see Inglis revert to his preferred fullback slot.
Slater hasn’t played since Round 5 and the Kiwis will rub their hands together at the prospect of the aging Storm legend lining up in the No.1.
Inglis was the Kangaroos’ best during the Four Nations campaign, while NSW provided the blueprint for shutting down the Souths custodian at centre during last year’s Origin series.
Prolific Rabbitohs flyer Alex Johnston has received a deserved debut on the wing, but Josh Dugan has collected his first green-and-gold jumper on the other flank – despite having never played there in his seven-season NRL career.
Dugan will line up against seasoned wing powerhouse Manu Vatuvei.
Josh Mansour’s injury opened the door for Sheens to draft Dugan in out of position, but a specialist like Daniel Tupou or Sione Mata’utia – who both earned their Test spurs last season – or even in-form veterans Akuila Uate or Pat Richards would have been more prudent options.
Australia has taken a different tact in the engine-room, with in-form Dragon Trent Merrin the only debutant.
Joining him on the bench, however, will be the re-called James Tamou, who was horribly out of sorts in the early rounds of the season.
Cue the ‘Dad’s Army’ jibes with the seven of the forwards contingent 29 years or older, but Sam Thaiday, Greg Bird and Corey Parker all deserved to keep their spots – although Boyd Cordner, Josh Jackson and Josh Papalii, also in the extended squad as injury cover, were unlucky omissions.
Luke Lewis’ recall as the only player resembling a bench utility could come back to bite the ’Roos though; Daly Cherry-Evans, a regular Test player in that interchange role, has been named as 18th man.
The Kiwis are the reigning Four Nations champions after downing the under-strength Kangaroos twice during the 2014 post-season campaign.
Not only would victory at Suncorp Stadium on Friday give the traditional ‘little brother’ of the trans-Tasman rivalry three straight wins over Australia for the first time in over 60 years and end a long-running Anzac Test hoodoo, but the Kiwis would also take over top spot in the world rankings.
Australian team: Billy Slater, Alex Johnston, Greg Inglis, Will Chambers, Josh Dugan, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Matt Scott, Cameron Smith (capt), Aaron Woods, Greg Bird, Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker. Bench: Luke Lewis, Trent Merrin, Nate Myles, James Tamou.
Kiwis stick with 2014 heroes
Stephen Kearney has rewarded the vast majority of those who did the job for him in New Zealand’s Four Nations triumph, with Adam Blair and Jason Nightingale the big losers in the Kiwis’ selection scramble.
Dean Whare and Jason Taumololo were ruled out.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Ben Matulino and Sam Moa have both come into the 18-man squad after missing last year’s tournament through injury, while 19-year-old winger Dallin Watene Zelezniak is in line for a debut after a broken foot denied him a maiden jumper at the end of last year.
With Whare unavailable, incumbent fullback Peta Hiku seems the logical option to slot into the centres, which would see Tuivasa-Sheck don the black-and-white No.1 for the first time and Watene-Zelezniak line up on the right flank.
Taumololo’s untimely injury will see Greg Eastwood or Martin Taupau come in at lock, while Thomas Leuluai is likely to be the player to miss out on the final 17 – unless Kieran Foran, who made a successful return for Manly on Saturday, is deemed unfit.
New Zealand team: Jesse Bromwich, Lewis Brown, Greg Eastwood, Kieran Foran, Tohu Harris, Peta Hiku, Shaun Johnson, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Thomas Leuluai, Issac Luke, Simon Mannering, Ben Matulino, Sam Moa, Kevin Proctor, Matin Taupau, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Manu Vatuvei, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.