LEAGUE OF NATIONS
AUSTRALIA’S RETIREMENT PARTY
How do you replace some of the greatest players of all time?
That’s Mal Meninga’s dilemma. The Australian coach knows their “big three” of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, and Billy Slater are taking part in their World Cup swansong, so the Kangaroos will be motivated to reward them with a tournament victory.
Smith is the game’s most valuable player. Consider the following: he’s played 50 consecutive Tests; has an 86 percent success rate over 11 years and should become Australia’s most capped player next year. Throw in 358 NRL games and 42 State of Origin matches, and you’re talking records that won’t get beaten.
Meninga paid his captain the ultimate accolade ahead of the World Cup: Smith’s the greatest ever. “I’ve had a lot to do with Cameron, and he’s certainly in my mind, if not the greatest player to have played the game, one of the greatest players to have ever played the game,” he said.
“His character is great on the field, his composure and his intelligence, but more importantly the way he holds his ambassadorial role for the game in high stead. I think that stands him apart as one of the greatest players to have played the game.”
That’s heady praise indeed. As each week passed during the Storm’s march to the NRL premiership, it became a running joke how many records he’d broken each week. Most number of NRL games, first to reach 1000 goals, most NRL wins. He’s broken the records for breaking records. He’s a once-ina-generation player.
Cronk is a relative latecomer to the Australian side and only became a fixture after Darren Lockyer’s retirement in 2011. He’s a smart tactician and is composed as can be – a trait of great Kangaroo halfbacks such as Andrew Johns, Allan Langer, and Brett Kimmorley. The Storm No.7 will be keen to replicate his terrific 2013 World Cup, where his fingerprints were all over their final triumph.
The Australians have great depth in their outside backs, but Slater, who still has blistering pace, commands a place on form and reputation.
In 1988, the Kangaroos were also coming to an end of an era. Although the final at Eden Park was a one-off match rather than a short tournament, Wayne Pearce remembers the raucous atmosphere that greeted the Kangaroos that day. It made it a fitting World Cup farewell for ’80s greats Garry Jack, Dale Shearer and Terry Lamb.
“What made the ’88 game unique was the atmosphere,” Pearce said. “It was the only show in town. They had to put a whole lot of people seated on the inside of the oval because they couldn’t fit them all in. So from the view as a farewell experience, it was
wonderful. Hopefully the guys in the Australian team this year who are likely to play in their final World Cup – quite a few of them – will get that sort of farewell.”
Meninga has reinvigorated interest in playing for Australia. As a former great, he’s well aware of the tradition and history that the Kangaroo jersey respects. Pearce is full of praise for Meninga’s approach to history, something that should help phase out the old and bring in the new wave.
“I think Mal’s done a fantastic job in elevating the Australian jersey,” he said. “It’s always been a highlight for someone’s career to play for your country. The prestige, kudos and dignity that Mal’s added to the jersey I think enhances it, and the tradition he’s made the players aware of has added to the experience of wearing that jumper.
“I think it helps the energy. When you have higher energy across the team, the dynamic moves into a space where you inevitably get better performance.”
Young guns like Tom Trbojevic and Nathan Cleary might get a crack in the Kangaroos in the future. They’ll do well to reach half the heights of Slater, Smith and Cronk. Australia can also afford to experiment, and Meninga will eventually give some Test rookies a chance.
I wouldn’t want to be the person that informs Smith he’s resting. He hasn’t skipped a game for a decade, why start now?