This week we take a look at Representative Round, the newly minted Kiwis, the importance of Origin for Kangaroos selection and whether the whole thing should be scrapped.
We tackle some of the big talking points in the latest edition of NRL Real or Not.
New Zealand are a force again
REAL: Five years ago there appeared to be a genuine crisis for New Zealand rugby league. A crop of stars -- led by Jason Taumalolo -- jumped ship to Tonga, culminating in a spectacular 28-22 win for Tonga over the Kiwis at Waikato Stadium in front of a boisterous pro-Tonga crowd.
That was only the start of a woeful run for the NZ national team, with a shock 4-2 loss to Fiji and a 36-18 thumping at the hands of England following. They bounced back to shock Australia 26-24 in October 2018, before two more losses to England.
Since the Kiwis last played in 2019 -- with a couple of wins over Great Britain in the Lions tour -- a few things have happened. Joseph Manu, Dylan Brown, Jahrome Hughes, Brandon Smith and Isaiah Papalli'i have emerged as genuine superstars, while Joseph Tapine has been arguably the best middle forward in the NRL over the past month.
All five are starting in key positions for New Zealand against Tonga on Saturday, and while there's plenty of hype around a spectacular Tonga forward pack (featuring the likes of Taumalolo, Haumole Olakau'atu, Tevita Pangai jnr, Keaon Koloamatangi and Addin Fonua-Blake) it's hard to see the Tonga backline matching it with the talented Kiwis.
- Dominic Brock
Representative Round is a great concept
NOT REAL: Not everyone is happy with this representative round being thrown into the middle of the season. There are fears for player welfare, as well as the ongoing confusion over representation criteria. Players stating that they want to represent their second tier nations in a Test, but also putting their hands up for State of Origin jerseys. It has been a bit of a mess really. New South Wales coach Brad Fittler wasn't happy.
"You can't have a mid-year Test, you just can't," Fittler said.
"Clubs are worried about Origin itself, the biggest stage, and they learn on this stage, and they get better on this stage, so you can see coaches sort of at least realise there's a positive out of it.
"But apart from getting the players together, then I think coaches from clubs are wondering where's the benefit (in these Tests)?"
Meanwhile ARL boss Peter V'Landys tried to spice up the U19s State of Origin clash by allowing each side to select four 20-year-olds, allowing some of the brightest stars of the NRL to showcase their wares. Unfortunately, NRL head coaches were not having a bar of it, refusing to release their top-line youngsters for the mid-season clash.
The core of the problem is that rugby league is an extremely physically demanding sport. Injuries, often severe ones, are part of the game at club level. At representative level the intensity of the contest rises a degree or two. No club, paying the salaries of these star players, wants to see their very best risk an injury in a game that serves no real benefit to that club.
In the post-COVID world, rugby league needs to firstly sort out the representative selection criteria. It then needs to set aside a post-NRL season period for Tests, to be run every year as either standalone games, or a series of games. Then every four years you have the World Cup.
- Darren Arthur
Kangaroos spots on the line on Sunday
REAL: Australia is one nation not in action this weekend but Sunday's State of Origin match in Perth could go a long way towards deciding which players make up the Kangaroos' World Cup squad at the end of the year.
This year's Origin series looks set to carry more weight than usual when it comes to Test selection, with Origin coaches Brad Fittler and Billy Slater (and, curiously, ARLC chairman Peter V'Landys) reportedly replacing Laurie Daley and Darren Lockyer as Kangaroos selectors, alongside Australia coach Mal Meninga.
Some curious selections have already raised a few questions about the likely make-up of the Kangaroos team. Josh Addo-Carr is an incumbent Australia Test winger but has missed both of Fittler's NSW squads. Harry Grant has emerged as Damien Cook's chief rival for the Kangaroos No.9 jersey but both are now bench hookers for their states.
And while NSW have dominated in recent Origin years, if Queensland wrap up the series on Sunday it'll be hard for the Kangaroos selectors to justify picking too many Blues ahead of their Maroons counterparts. That could mean Daly Cherry-Evans retaining the No.7 jersey ahead of Nathan Cleary -- arguably the most valuable player in the league -- while some of the bolters in Slater's Queensland squad could find themselves suddenly in contention for a Kangaroos spot.
- Dominic Brock