The Pacific Championships are almost upon us, giving rugby league fans a taste of international rugby league only days after the NRL grand final.
Australia, New Zealand and Samoa will compete for the Cup competition, with Tonga taking on England in a three-Test series.
Meanwhile, Fiji, Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea will do battle for the Bowl and each nation is yet to announce their squads.
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Mal Meninga made a number of bold selection calls in his side, snubbing Kalyn Ponga, Reece Walsh and Dylan Edwards.
Michael Maguire also has a hooker crisis to contend with, while Samoa are set to field a dangerous backline.
Read below for a preview of the Pacific Championships Cup!
PACIFIC CHAMPIONSHIPS CUP
World ranking: 1st
Last game: 19 November 2022 — 30-10 vs Samoa (W)
Coach: Mal Meninga
Full squad (* Denotes debutant): Josh Addo-Carr (Bulldogs), Patrick Carrigan (Broncos), Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles), Nicho Hynes (Sharks), Selwyn Cobbo* (Broncos), Lindsay Collins (Roosters), Reuben Cotter (Cowboys), Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (Titans), Thomas Flegler* (Broncos), Harry Grant (Storm), Payne Haas* (Broncos), Valentine Holmes (Cowboys), Ben Hunt (Dragons), Liam Martin (Panthers), Cameron Munster (Storm), Cameron Murray (Rabbitohs), Kotoni Staggs* (Broncos), Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow* (Dolphins), James Tedesco, capt. (Roosters), Jake Trbojevic (Sea Eagles), Isaah Yeo (Panthers)
Predicted best team:
1. James Tedesco
2. Selwyn Cobbo
3. Kotoni Staggs
4. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
5. Josh Addo-Carr
6. Cameron Munster
7. NDaly Cherry-Evans
8. Reuben Cotter
9. Harry Grant
10. Payne Haas
11. Liam Martin
12. Cameron Murray
13. Patrick Carrigan
14. Ben Hunt
15. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui
16. Lindsay Collins
17. Isaah Yeo
Left out: Tom Flegler, Valentine Holmes (suspension), Jake Trbojevic, Nicho Hynes
Player to watch: Kotoni Staggs. Set to make his Australia debut this series and has been on fire for the Broncos to close out the year. So far his representative career has been far from smooth, sailing, featuring in only one game for the NSW Blues in 2022. He suffered a knock to the shoulder in that game, but was fit to play for the remaining two games of the series, however he wasn’t picked. Staggs will have a point to prove when the Kangaroos take the field, with one game to prove his worth before Valentine Holmes is free to take the field after serving his one-game suspension.
Analysis: Nathan Cleary’s fitness was a big question mark for the Kangaroos, having suffered a knee injury after a Payne Haas hip drop in the grand final. On Wednesday he was ruled out with Nicho Hynes called in to replace him in the team. Daly Cherry-Evans looms as Australia’s first choice halfback, having already bee in the squad but Hynes is now one step closer to a rep return after he was snubbed for Game II of the Origin series. Roosters gun James Tedesco beat out Ponga, Reece Walsh and Dylan Edwards for the fullback spot, with coach Mal Meninga staying loyal to the Roosters gun. Winger Josh Addo-Carr has also been named despite his involvement in an all-in brawl at the Koori Knockout. Meanwhile, centre Valentine Holmes will also be absent for the first game of the tournament, serving a suspension for his white powder scandal. His suspension gives Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Kotoni Staggs a chance to impress Meninga and potentially keep Holmes out of the side. The Kangaroos have a wealth of impressive forwards to choose from in their squad and a battle of the locks looms between Isaah Yeo and Patrick Carrigan. The Queensland No.13 could get the nod due to his Origin exploits, meaning Yeo will take a spot on the bench and become a stellar impact player in the middle. Elsewhere, the hooker duo of Ben Hunt and Harry Grant are set to remain together and it yet to be seen which player will start for Australia. However, Hynes is also an option to play in the utility role if called upon.
Playing for their future: This could be Daly Cherry-Evans’ last series in Kangaroos colours and he has now been given a change to dominates in the No.7 jersey. With Cleary out, Cherry-Evans will wear the No.7 and partner Cameron Munster in Queensland’s Origin-winning halves pairing. If he delivers, Meninga will have no choice but to pick him once again when international football rolls around in 2024.
Should Mam have got Clive Churchill? | 02:27
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World ranking: 2nd
Last game: 11 November 2022 — 16-18 vs Australia (L)
Coach: Michael Maguire
Squad: Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Storm), Dylan Brown (Eels), Fa’amanu Brown (Knights), James Fisher-Harris (Panthers), Kieran Foran (Titans), Wiremu Greig (Eels), Jahrome Hughes (Storm), Jamayne Isaako (Dolphins), Keano Kini (Titans), Moses Leota (Panthers), Danny Levi (Raiders), Joseph Manu (Roosters), Ronaldo Mulitalo (Sharks), Griffin Neame (Cowboys), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Warriors), Briton Nikora (Sharks), Isaiah Papali’i (Wests Tigers), Joseph Tapine (Raiders), Leo Thompson (Knights), Matthew Timoko (Raiders), Naufahu Whyte (Roosters)
Predicted best team:
1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
2. Jamayne Isaako
3. Matthew Timoko
4. Joseph Manu
5. Ronaldo Mulitalo
6. Dylan Brown
7. Jahrome Hughes
8. Moses Leota
9. Danny Levi
10. James Fisher-Harris
11. Briton Nikora
12. Isaiah Papali’i
13. Joseph Tapine
14. Kieran Foran
15. Nelson Asofa-Solomona
16. Leo Thompson
17. Wiremu Greig
Left out: Fa’amanu Brown, Griffin Neame, Keano Kini, Naufahu Whyte
Player to watch: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. The Warriors fullback had a stellar season in the No.1 jersey in 2023. After falling down the pecking order at the Raiders, he once again emerged as one of the NRL’s best fullbacks and deservedly will line up at fullback in this side. Meanwhile, Knights enforcer Leo Thompson will also be hoping to stamp his mark on this team after a breakout season in the Hunter.
Analysis: Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson ruled himself out of this tournament in a huge loss for Michael Maguire’s side. They also have a hooker shortage with Brandon Smith, Phoenix Crossland and Jeremy Marshall-King ruled out due to injury which sees Danny Levi return to the Kiwis side after representing Samoa at last year’s World Cup. Maguire has named seven potential debutants in this team, including Griffin Neame, Fa’amanu Brown, Wiremu Greig, Keano Kini, Matthew Timoko, Naufahu Whyte and Leo Thompson. 2022 Golden Boot winner Joseph Manu, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Dylan Brown and Jahrome Hughes all featured for New Zealand in last year’s World Cup squad. Meanwhile, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Isaiah Papali’i, Briton Nikora, Joseph Tapine, Kieran Foran and Nelson Asofa Solomona all also played. Foran is a strong chance of featuring in the utility role due to the shortage of Kiwi hookers available, while Dallin Watene-Zelezniak has opted to represent Tonga but has since been ruled out due to injury. Maguire also had a big headache on his hands to pick his final bench spots, with Greig and Thompson fighting it out with Brown and Whyte.
Playing for their future: Danny Levi has everything to play for in this tournament. His 2023 campaign with the Raiders saw him break his jaw, twice. Now he gets a chance to prove himself in front of Canberra’s assistant in Maguire. The former Samoan International will be desperate to impress to find his spot in the Raiders’ starting line-up.
‘Surprised’ Mal reveals Latrell omission | 01:13
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World ranking: 3rd
Last game:19 November 2022 — 10-30 vs Australia (L)
Coach: Ben Gardiner
Full squad (* Denotes debutant): Jesse Arthars (Brisbane Broncos)*, Daejarn Asi (Parramatta Eels)*, Gordon Chan Kum Tong (Manly Sea Eagles)*, Stephen Crichton (Penrith Panthers), Sualauvi Faalogo (Melbourne Storm)*, Royce Hunt (Cronulla Sharks), Luciano Leilua (North Queensland Cowboys), Connelly Lemuelu (Dolphins), Spencer Leniu (Penrith Panthers), Heilum Luki (North Queensland Cowboys)*, Greg Marzhew (Newcastle Knights)*, Justin Matamua (Wests Tigers)*, Terrell May (Sydney Roosters)*, Karl Oloapu (Canterbury Bulldogs)*, Keenan Palasia (Brisbane Broncos), Junior Paulo (Parramatta Eels), Izack Tago (Penrith Panthers), Murray Taulagi (North Queensland Cowboys)*, Young Tonumaipea (Melbourne Storm), Brian To’o (Penrith Panthers), Stefano Utoikamanu (Wests Tigers)
1. Stephen Crichton
2. Greg Marzhew
3. Murray Taulagi
4. Izack Tago
5. Brian To’o
6. Karl Oloapu
7. Daejarn Asi
8. Junior Paulo
9. Gordon Chan Kum Tong
10. Royce Hunt
11. Luciano Leilua
12. Connelly Lemuelu
13. Justin Matamua
14. Spencer Leniu
15. Heilum Luki
16. Terrell May
17. Keenan Palasia
Left out: Jesse Arthars, Sualauvi Faalogo, Young Tonumaipea
Player to watch: Karl Oloapu. The former Broncos young gun’s first year in first grade didn’t go exactly to script at the Bulldogs. Starting out as a utility, he then partnered Matt Burton in the halves before dropping out of the team. The 18-year-old is still developing but is set to make his Samoan debut this year. Phil Gould believes he is a lock, but in this team he is a chance of playing in the halves with Jarome Luai and Anthony Milford not in the squad.
Analysis: Ben Gardiner has some big calls to make when it comes to his backline. Stephen Crichton is the obvious choice at fullback with Joseph Suaalii ruled out due to concussion. However, Sualauvi Faalogo was electric in his NRL debut for the Storm and is another option. With Crichton at fullback, that will see Murray Taulagi play in the centres alongside Greg Marzhew, Izack Tago and Brian To’o. Karl Oloapu and Daejarn Asi are the only two recognised halves in this squad, and Gardiner could make a bold call and play either Crichton or Broncos gun Jesse Arthars at five-eighth if needed. Sea Eagles cult hero Gordon Chan Kum Tong is also the only specialist hooker in this team, meaning he will make his Samoa debut. Elsewhere young gun trio Heilum Luki, Terrell May and Keenan Palasia are all a strong chance of representing their country. May and Palasia were two of the best bench impact players to close out the season for the Roosters and Broncos respectively. Dolphins gun Connelly Lemuelu is also set to be rewarded for his impressive campaign and will partner Luciano Leilua in the backrow. Tigers gun Justin Matamua is also a smokey to wear the No.13, having played only seven first grade games this year.
Playing for their future: Both players are locked in to feature for the Roosters in 2023, but a battle between Terrell May and Spencer Leniu could decide who starts next season. With Jared Waerea-Hargreaves suspended for an extended period, one of the two exciting props will likely be called upon to partner Lindsay Collins. Trent Robinson will without doubt be watching the Pacific Championships intently.
Holmes selected for Kangaroos squad | 02:14
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Week One – October 14-15
Australia v Samoa (men) and Australia v New Zealand (women) at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
PNG v Cook Islands (men) and Samoa v Fiji (women) at Santos Stadium, Port Moresby
Week Two – October 21-22
New Zealand v Samoa (men) and New Zealand v Tonga (women) at Eden Park, Auckland
Fiji v Cook Islands (men) and PNG v Cook Islands (women) at Santos Stadium, Port Moresby
Week Three – October 28-29
Australia v New Zealand (men and women) at AAMI Park, Melbourne
PNG v Fiji (men) at Santos Stadium, Port Moresby
Week Four – November 4-5
The Final of the men’s Pacific Cup tournament on November 4 in Hamilton, New Zealand
The Final of the men’s Pacific Bowl tournament on November 5 at Santos Stadium, Port Moresby
Pacific Championships Bowl analysis to come…
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