James Maloney is the player most likely to step into Johnathan Thurston’s No.6 jersey for Australia’s only Test before the Rugby League World Cup, against New Zealand in Canberra on May 5, if the superstar five-eighth is ruled out by a calf injury.
Thurston, who will retire from representative football after the World Cup at the end of this season, is expected to be sidelined for a month after being assisted from the field in North Queensland’s 26-16 loss to Wests Tigers last Saturday night with a torn calf muscle.
The loss of Thurston would leave Maloney and Michael Morgan battling it out to partner Cooper Cronk in the halves against the Kiwis as Australian coach Mal Meninga has made it clear he wants to stick with players who were in last year’s successful Four Nations squad.
Maloney, who steered Cronulla to an 11-2 win over Melbourne in wet conditions on Sunday, played alongside Cronk in the opening Four Nations match against Scotland, while the Cowboys pairing of Thurston and Morgan played together the following week against New Zealand.
However, Morgan also fills the role of bench utility for the Kangaroos and both are likely to be in the 17-man Kangaroos squad to be named by Meninga on April 30.
“I spoke to Mal last week along those lines [of sticking loyal with Four Nations players] and it makes sense when you have a short preparation,” Australian team manager Michael Hagan said.
“Both Michael and James had opportunities on the Four Nations tour and did quite well so they would be in the frame for sure if Johnathan was ruled out. I think you wouldn’t go too far wrong either way and maybe both could be in the mix.
“I watched the game between the Sharks and the Storm quite closely and James just comes up with the right play at the right time. He is competitive and he is one of those guys who everyone likes to have in the team.”
Barring further injuries Meninga is only likely to go outside the Four Nations squad to find a left centre replacement for Greg Inglis, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in South Sydney’s opening round loss to Wests Tigers.
North Queensland’s Justin O’Neill, who deputised for Inglis against Scotland, is also out with a knee injury, as is Cowboys Test prop Matt Scott.
Melbourne’s Will Chambers, Canberra’s Jarrod Croker and Sharks utility Jack Bird are all being considered, while Wests Tigers fullback James Tedesco could be a wildcard option after playing in the centres for Italy during the 2013 World Cup.
Meninga could also switch Josh Dugan from right centre to fill the role but there are also doubts over the availability of the St George Illawarra fullback after he missed last Saturday’s 35-10 defeat of Manly with a hamstring injury.
“No matter who is in our out, I am sure Mal will come up with a talented team,” Hagan said.
New Zealand coach David Kidwell also faces a selection dilemma - but of a different kind – after Kieran Foran’s successful NRL return with the Warriors.
With Foran partnering Shaun Johnson in the halves as part of all Kiwis spine, which also includes fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and hooker Issac Luke, the Warriors have won their last two matches and he was the star of Sunday’s 22-10 defeat of Parramatta.
“They had no Foran and no Tuivasa-Sheck in the Four Nations so they are going to be a lot more formidable with those four guys and especially after they’ve had four or five games together,” Hagan said. “They just operate and understand each other’s games really, really well.”
This article first appeared on RLWC2017.com