Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney’s decision to leave Benji Marshall out of his touring squad has been exposed as England eased to a 26-12 win in the first test in Hull.
With test regulars Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran and Thomas Leuluai all unavailable for the tour, former test captain and Dally M Player of the Year runner-up Marshall loomed as the obvious replacement to provide experience and class in the halves. But for some unexplained reason Kearney overlooked the Dragons half, opting instead to play rookie Warriors utility Tuimoala Lolohea in the all-important number seven jumper, alongside makeshift five-eighth Pita Hiku, while Marshall remained Down Under and underwent surgery that could have been delayed until after the tour.
The Kiwis attack was stunted throughout the match while the kicking game was abysmal. The memories of a superb Four Nations tournament and break-through ANZAC Test win in the past year are fading fast as the number one ranked side in the world stare down the barrel of a series defeat unless they can find a significant turn-around at the Olympic Stadium in London next weekend.
Kearney has never properly addressed the reasons for leaving Marshall out. The best he has managed is to suggest there were no personal issues between the pair and that the decision to overlook him was based around form and a plan to pick players who he can develop before the next World Cup in 2017.
Form can’t surely be the issue here – Marshall enjoyed a better 2015 NRL season than ANY Kiwi half, leading the Dragons to the post-season and finishing second only to Johnathan Thurston in the Dally M Player of the Year standings. The idea of developing halves ahead of the next World Cup certainly has merit but playing Hiku out of position makes little sense. Lolohea is clearly a talent and Kearney could still have partnered the Warriors rookie up with Marshall in the halves on this tour and instigated his development in a position he’s played only a handful of first grade games in.
Kearney’s move to play Lolohea and Hiku together in the halves is akin to a basketball coach selecting a power forward at point guard and wondering why the team’s offense wasn’t able to click.
Despite possessing a forward pack and outside backs that are more than capable of matching anything England can throw up, the disadvantage of playing without territory on the back of a weak kicking game and without the play-making ability to construct tries leaves the Kiwis too much to do.
A series loss in England just erodes the ground the Kiwis have worked so hard to gain in the past 12 months.