Kiwis discard Leuluai, call up Levi
Hardly a ringing endorsement for Thomas Leuluai and Kodi Nikorima, then.
New Zealand were up to it physically against Tonga, says coach David Kidwell. It was between the ears where the Kiwis got themselves beaten 28-22 in Hamilton.
So out go Leuluai and Nikorima, replaced by Danny Levi and Te Maire Martin for Saturday’s Rugby League World Cup quarterfinal against Fiji at Westpac Stadium.
Some might wonder what responsibility halfback Shaun Johnson - once named the world’s best player and a man who reportedly commands a seven-figure salary in club football - should bear for last week’s defeat. But in making just the two changes Kidwell is indicating it was only the blokes who played hooker and five-eighth that were to blame.
To be totally fair to Levi, he’s been good off the bench during this tournament, while Martin was prominent in the 74-6 romp over Scotland. So now Leuluai’s been left out of Saturday’s 17 entirely, with Nikorima on the bench to cover hooker, the halves and fullback if needed.
‘‘I thought we had the toughness and the effort against Tonga, we just missed our smarts,’’ Kidwell said in Wellington on Tuesday.
New Zealand shouldn’t need to be too clever to beat this week’s opponent. Fiji are very good in the backs, with Suliasi Vunivalu, Akuila Uate and Jarryd Hayne among them, while hooker Apisai Koroisau is a real star on the rise.
Overall, though, the Kiwis ought to have too much menace up front to make this match much of a contest.
It’s a moot point whether anyone will feel they have something to prove on Saturday. Listening to Kidwell, it sounds as if the players have already atoned for the Tonga defeat, having led 16-2 at halftime.
‘‘I’ve had the response [I wanted] straight after that game,’’ said Kidwell.
‘‘Straight after the loss we had a really good talk in the sheds [and] from then on our preparation’s been faultless. We’ve figured out that it’s the little things that matter in our footy team [such as] the push around the footy, making sure we’ve got good support, the discipline.’’
Assuming the Kiwis can win this match, they’d progress to a semifinal against Australia in Brisbane. Get up in that game and they’re likely to get either Tonga or England in the grand final.
This is the sharp end of the tournament, in other words, even if Kidwell is still searching for his best 17.
‘‘This is the team that’s taking us forward in the quarterfinal and after that, or whatever the result is, we’ll revisit that,’’ he said.
Thomas Leuluai is one of two players to pay the price for the Kiwis’ loss to Tonga.