As the 2014 Rugby League Four Nations edges closer, excitement has been rapidly building following the squad announcements of all four teams. This year’s tournament – involving Australia, New Zealand, England and Samoa – will be the fourth time the event has been held, and thrilling conclusions to the Super League and NRL seasons has only left rugby league fans hungrier for more action.
While hosts Australia and New Zealand will start the tournament as the firm Betfair favourites, Steve McNamara’s England are heading Down Under confident about upsetting the odds and springing a surprise. And let’s not forget Samoa; who earned their place in the tournament after winning a play-off against Fiji and will be looking to prove they can compete with the game’s dominant forces. While it remains to be seen which two teams will make it to the final at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium on November 15, the unveiling of the four squads has shown just how seriously this tournament is being taken.
Looking closely at each of the four squads, there will be some of the world’s best players from both hemispheres on display in Australia and New Zealand this month. While the Kangaroos and the Kiwis are packed with NRL stars, this England squad boast some of Super League’s biggest names. While Samoa might not have the stars of rugby league in their squad, the momentum the Pacific Islanders have following their play-off victory over Fiji shouldn’t be underestimated, nor should their experience.
Defending Four Nations champions Australia will start this year’s tournament as favourites; despite the fact Tim Sheens is missing a host of key players from his squad. While the Aussies will head into the tournament expected to win, they will have to do it without a number of those players who played such a crucial role in the Kangaroos triumphing at last year’s World Cup. The most noticeable aspect of this Australia squad has been just how many young players are in it – highlighted by the inclusion of 18-year old Sione Mata’utia.
Newcastle teenager Mata’utia will become the youngest Test player in Australian rugby league history if he appears in the tournament, breaking a 100-year record in the process if the former Australia schoolboys’ captain gets onto the field. Despite appearing in just seven NRL games, Mata’utia is already the least experienced player in more than 50-years to earn a Kangaroos call-up. The outside back is one of 10 rookies named in coach Sheens’s 24-man squad, with Sheens forced to blood more youngsters than he would have wanted following the withdrawal of some key names.
With Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston and Paul Gallen all ruled out of the tournament, Sheens has made the decision to hand a some talented youngsters the chance to make the step up from the NRL onto the international stage. South Sydney grand final heroes Alex Johnston and Dylan Walker have earned their first call-ups after impressive seasons, as have Canterbury forwards David Klemmer and Josh Jackson, Penrith winger Josh Mansour, Sydney Roosters’ State of Origin duo Daniel Tupou and Aiden Guerra, Brisbane halfback Ben Hunt and Wests Tigers forward Aaron Woods.
Australia aren’t the only team in the upcoming Four Nations who are using the tournament as a chance to test out some younger players. While New Zealand’s 23-man squad is significantly more experienced than Australia, Stephen Kearney has named five uncapped players in his group and there is an element of the unknown about this Kiwis squad. After last year’s disappointing World Cup performance, New Zealand will know their fans expect their team to make it to win this tournament despite what the bookies are saying. Kiwi supporters will get an early indication of what this team is about when the Kiwis open their tournament up with a clash against Australia in Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
Teenage winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is one of those uncapped players to have earned a call-up after a productive season. The 19-year-old has impressed enough in just 10 appearances for Penrith to earn a spot in Coach Stephen Kearney’s 24-man squad. Joining Watene-Zelezniak in the All Blacks squad for the first time will be North Queensland second rower Jason Taumalolo, Cronulla’s Sosaia Feki and Warriors prop Suaia Matagi – whose selection had been in doubt after Samoa also selected the 26-year-old. Feki and Matagi were late inclusions following last-minute withdrawals of Sydney Roosters duo Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.
West Tigers forward Bodene Thompson was another player to receive a late call-up for New Zealand’s Four Nations squad after Sydney Roosters prop Sam Moa withdrew due to a family illness. Thompson had been touring with the New Zealand Maori squad in Queensland and will now link up with the rest of the All Blacks squad on the Gold Coast ahead of their opening game of the tournament. After making his name during three seasons in Australia with the Gold Coast Titans, Thompson joined the Tigers in 2013 and is coming off the back of one of the best seasons of his career.
The most notable aspect of this England squad has been the fact long-time skipper Kevin Sinfield isn’t in it. Following the Leeds star’s decision to retire from international rugby, Wigan’s Sean O’Loughlin has been named as England captain for the upcoming Four Nations tournament. When considering the loss of Sam Burgess to rugby union, England are now without two genuine world class players. While there is a familiar look about much of the squad with 13 members of last year’s World Cup group named in the 24, there are nine uncapped players in an exciting looking England squad.
Castleford’s Steve Prescott Man of Steel nominee Daryl Clark is one of the new faces among the squad, now in with a great chance of cementing a place in the starting line-up with St Helens’ James Roby and Wigan’s Michael McIlorum missing from the squad and joining Ben Westwood on the injured list. Prescott joins Wigan trio Matty Smith, Dan Sarginson and teenager Joe Burgess in the squad, with all three capping off successful seasons by helping the Warriors win the Grand Final.
Other new faces among the 24-man squad will be St George Illawarra Dragons forward Mike Cooper, who has put himself in England contention after catching Steve McNamara’s eye since making the move from Warrington to Australia. Josh Hodgson, who will be joining NRL side Canberra Raiders from Hull KR later in the year, is another to earn his first call-up to the squad, and all nine uncapped players will now be looking to win their first caps over this month.
After finishing as one of the top two Pacific nations in last year’s World Cup, Samoa and Fiji were given the chance to book their place alongside Australia, New Zealand and England in the Four Nations. In a thrilling game at Penrith Stadium, Samoa produced a clinical second half performance to claim a convincing 32-16 victory. While the islanders are now expected to be nothing more than cannon fodder for the other three teams to blow away, Samoa have more than enough talent in their squad to cause their opponents some problems over the next month.