By NRL.com Reporter, Chris Kennedy
After a one-year hiatus, a revamped NRL Harvey Norman All Stars fixture is back on the calendar with the New Zealand Māori to take on the Indigenous All Stars for the first time.
The move is a positive one with the Māori to present a welcome – and no doubt passionate – addition to the fixture.
Both teams will boast some huge names as well as some scintillating young talent.
While the Indigenous side will be without the likes of Ryan James and Greg Inglis (both knee), and Ben Barba (deregistered) and the Māori team has lost Jordan McLean (Townsville floods), their absences present opportunities to other players.
They won’t have an easy time of it against a Māori side boasting a stack of Test talent including Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, Dane Gagai, Peta Hiku, Adam Blair, Tohu Harris, Kevin Proctor, James Tamou and Dean Whare.
Cody Walker and Tyrone Roberts v Kalyn Ponga and Jahrome Hughes. The two halves pairings in this match have boundless ability. For the Indigenous side, Walker and Roberts bring plenty of experience, calm heads and, in Roberts, the most developed kicking game from either team.
While Walker is one of the code’s most dangerous running halves the Māori team still has the edge in this department with Ponga and Hughes both still better-recognised as dangerous running fullbacks despite each spending time in the halves last season.
With the squads having so little time to gel there is a chance the game plan goes out the window – which would play into the Māori pair’s hands – but any extra control and polish Roberts and Walker can add could well prove the difference in even an unstructured contest.
For the Indigenous All Stars to win
The injury to Ryan James leaves the Indigenous squad a little light on for props. They have one of the most dangerous big men on the planet in Andrew Fifita but for the Indigenous side to triumph, he will need some good support from the likes of promising but uncapped rookie Kerr and journeymen Leilani Latu and Chris Smith to match it with a powerful Māori pack that has five middle forwards with Test experience in the squad.
You can all but guarantee that potent pack will create some attacking sets for the Māori side. While none of their playmakers (which also includes fullback Peta Hiku and hooker Brandon Smith) is playing out of position as such, each is playing in a jersey number which has not been their regular one at NRL level. The question is whether something of a makeshift spine can come together in time to create enough point-scoring opportunities to win the match – if they can do that they’ll go a long way towards claiming the trophy.
Indigenous Stat Attack
Players from the Indigenous squad were near the top of some significant stats in the Telstra Premiership last season. Winger Blake Ferguson finished best for total and average metres with 4862 at 203 per game. Andrew Fifita’s 70 offloads were the second-best of all players while his 105 busts were the second-most of any forward.
When it comes to line breaks, Ferguson (19), Walker (18), Mitchell (17) and Addo-Carr (16) were all in the top 10 of the competition. There’s no doubt this squad contains some of the most dangerous ball-runners in the game right now.
The weight of Test experience in favour of the Māori side is startling. In total the Indigenous squad has 33 Test caps shared among five players. The Māori team has a whopping 223 Test caps among 17 players. In fact, from the entire squad only the two halves and Corey Harawira-Naera are yet to represent their nation in a Test and even then it’s probably just a matter of time.
These numbers include starts for Tier 2 nations but the gulf only gets wider if you trim it to just Tier 1 caps – the Indigenous squad have nine Tongan caps between Fifita and Latu while the Māori team have four Cook Islands jerseys between Brad Takairangi and Esan Marsters. The remaining 219 Test starts for the Māori side are all for Australia (Dane Gagai and James Tamou) and New Zealand. Adam Blair’s 47 Kiwi Test caps outnumber the entire Indigenous squad’s Test experience.
Maroons and Kangaroos back Dane Gagai is one of a handful of players in the NRL to qualify for both teams and this year becomes the first player to represent both the Indigenous and Māori All Stars. Gagai’s cousin and one-time Indigenous All Star Josh Hoffman could potentially become another in future
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Bevan French (Eels); Blake Ferguson (Eels), James Roberts (Broncos), Latrell Mitchell (Roosters), Josh Addo-Carr (Storm); Cody Walker (Rabbitohs), Tyrone Roberts (Titans); Andrew Fifita (Sharks), Nathan Peats (Titans), Josh Kerr (Dragons), David Fifita (Broncos), Adam Elliott (Bulldogs), Tyrone Peachey (Titans). Interchange: Will Chambers (Storm), Leilani Latu (Titans), Chris Smith (Bulldogs), Alex Johnston (Rabbitohs), Jesse Ramien (Knights), Tyrell Fuimaono (Panthers), Kotoni Staggs (Broncos).
Peta Hiku (Warriors); Dane Gagai (Rabbitohs), Esan Marsters (Wests Tigers), Dean Whare (Panthers), Jordan Kahu (Broncos); Kalyn Ponga (Knights), Jahrome Hughes (Storm); Jesse Bromwich (Storm), Brandon Smith (Storm), James Tamou (Panthers), Kevin Proctor (Titans), Tohu Harris (Warriors), Adam Blair (Warriors). Interchange:Danny Levi (Knights), Brad Takairangi (Eels), James Fisher-Harris (Panthers), Gerard Beale (Warriors), Corey Harawira-Naera (Bulldogs), Joseph Tapine (Raiders), Kenny Bromwich (Cowboys)