Australian coach Mal Meninga is facing an uphill battle to retain the World Cup with players withdrawing from Australian selection left, right and centre.
The latest stars to throw a spanner in the works for Meninga this week were Broncos enforcer Payne Haas and Roosters flyer Joseph Suaalii.
Suaalii has defaulted to Samoa, while Haas won’t play in the tournament for family reasons and to focus on Brisbane’s 2023 season.
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Meninga played down the significance of the latest stars to declare themselves unavailable for Australia and praised both players for making the decision before the Kangaroos squad was finalized.
“I fully understand their reasons and wish them all the best. I’m happy and supportive that their decision has been made prior to team selection,” Meninga told foxsports.com.au.
However, it is hard to ignore the fact Australia have been left depleted by the number of players choosing to represent other nations over the Kangaroos.
In what was once thought unthinkable, Australia will be tested for depth in terms of seasoned international players and will have to blood a number of debutants in their squad.
The duo join a growing list of players Meninga can no longer pick and means Samoa are becoming genuine title contenders.
Roosters lock Victor Radley stunned the rugby league world in July after choosing to represent England, just weeks after being in the NSW Origin squad.
That came after Penrith duo Brian To’o and Jarome Luai caused an uproar when they declared their allegiance to Samoa earlier in the year.
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THE LOOPHOLE BEING EXPOSED
Several current or former Origin stars will be lining up for rival nations at the World Cup, taking advantage of a loophole that allows them to play for their state and tier two nations.
Suaalii, To’o, Luai, Stephen Crichton, Josh Papalii, Junior Paulo and Francis Molo will all play for Samoa.
While Felise Kaufusi, David Fifita, Kotoni Staggs and Daniel Tupou will all run out for Tonga.
Blue stars Api Koriousau and Reagan Campbell-Gillard could yet play for Fiji, while Xavier Coates might line up for Papua New Guinea.
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WHO’S CHOOSING AUSTRALIA
There are still several Australian-raised players with strong ties to their heritage who are putting their hand up for the Kangaroos selection.
Cowboys backrower Jeremiah Nanai is also eligible for Samoa but has opted to play for Australia, as has his club teammate Murray Taulagi.
Titans skipper Tino Fa’asuamaleau wants to play for the Kangaroos and Reagan Campbell-Gillard is expected to go with Meninga if picked.
Panthers hooker Api Koriosau has been picked in the Fiji squad but will wait to see if Meninga selects him before declaring his allegiance – likely to Australia.
Suaalii and Haas withdrawing could open the door for Matt Lodge and Selwyn Cobbo.
Genuine Kangaroos contenders playing for other nations:
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PREDICTED KANGAROOS SQUAD
1. James Tedesco (c)
2. Josh Addo-Carr
3. Dane Gagai
4. Latrell Mitchell
5. Valentine Holmes
6. Cameron Munster
7. Nathan Cleary
8. Jake Trbojevic
9. Ben Hunt
10. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui
11. Liam Martin
12. Cameron Murray
13. Isaac Yeo
14. Harry Grant
16. Angus Crichton
17. Hudson Young
18. Daly Cherry Evans
19. Jay Arrow
20. Lindsay Collins
21. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
23. Jack Wighton
24. Matt Burton