LEAGUE OF NA­TIONS

Inside Sport - - IN HINDSIGHT -

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?

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