After blooding props Josh Kerr and Jamayne Taunoa-Brown before their NRL debuts, Indigenous All Stars coach Laurie Daley expects to have greater forward depth at his disposal for next month’s annual clash with Maori All Stars at Townsville’s QCB Stadium.
Kerr, who is preparing for his third All Stars fixture, was called for the 2019 match in Melbourne before making his NRL debut with the Dragons and Daley last year had to turn to the untried Taunoa-Brown.
The Indigenous team has always been able to field a star-studded backline but forward depth has been an issue since the All Stars concept began in 2009.
However, with Taunoa-Brown going on to play in 19 of the Warriors 20 matches last season and Kerr having worn the Red V on 27 occasions, the Indigenous All Stars are set to field a far more experienced team than the one which lost 30-16 to the Maori last year at Cbus Super Stadium.
Cronulla prop Andrew Fifita is again available after missing last year’s match through injury and he and Sharks team-mate Wade Graham, star Titans recruit David Fifita and Bulldogs lock Adam Elliott will form the nucleus of a powerful Indigenous forward pack.
Gold Coast utility Tyrone Peachey, Dragons second-rower Tyrell Fuimaono, Canterbury’s Chris Smith and Manly’s Zac Saddler, who also played in last year’s All Stars match and is yet to make his NRL debut, are the other forwards vying for places in the Indigenous squad.
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“Last year we were battling and we had to bring in Jamayne and Zac, who hadn’t played NRL, so hopefully this year we can put our strongest team on the paddock but for me it is great that we can give young blokes an opportunity,” Daley said.
“Both Josh and Jamayne have really kicked on after playing All Stars and for them to learn from seeing how other players prepare and realise they can mix it with people at that level has been really good.
“It has given us a lot more depth and we now have guys with a bit more experience.”
The backline virtually picks itself with South Sydney fullback Latrell Mitchell, Melbourne winger Josh Addo-Carr, Canberra playmaker Jack Wighton and South Sydney five-eighth Cody Walker considered certainties provided they are fit.
Rabbitohs centre Dane Gagai is another certain selection if he plays but the Queensland Origin star withdrew from last year’s match as he is also eligible for the Maori All Stars and didn’t want to represent one heritage over the other.
The Indigenous and Maori teams for the February 20 match are set to be named next week.
Gold Coast pair Jamal Fogarty and Ash Taylor are vying for the No.7 jersey, with young playmakers Scott Drinkwater, Jayden Sullivan, Cade Cust, Will Smith, Braydon Trindall and Troy Dargan also in contention.
Newcastle’s Connor Watson is likely to fill the utility role and share the dummy half duties with North Queensland’s Rueben Cotter, who is the only specialist hooker in the squad.
In contrast, Daley is faced with an embarrassment of riches in the outside backs, including Alex Johnston, Blake Ferguson, Brenko Lee, Edrick Lee, James Robert and Jesse Ramien, Nicho Hynes, Daine Laurie and William Kennedy.
The All Stars match will be the first played under the rule changes introduced to the Telstra Premiership this season, which are aimed at keeping the ball in play longer and speeding up the game.
Since last year’s match, the NRL has also introduced the six-again call, which was first trialled in the 2012 All Stars clash, and Daley said he would be leaning on his senior players for advice about how to best utilise the rules.
“The game has evolved so I will be reliant on a lot of those guys to decide how we want to play and what they are learning at their clubs that can help us in this game,” Daley said.
“We might go away from some of the structure that we had although what we tend to see in our game is the boys playing the Indigenous style anyway by moving the ball and trying to attack, which is a great brand of footy.”
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