Australia head for World Cup semi-final with half-back conundrum
Three into Two Won’t Go was a 1969 Hollywood film starring Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom and Judy Gleeson. But it just as well could be the mantra for Australia’s World Cup campaign and the half-back headache over Nathan Cleary and Daly Cherry-Evans facing Mal Meninga.
To Cleary or not to Cleary, that is the question that has been keeping Meninga from getting his eight hours every night these past three weeks. It’s a classic case of young vs old, newcomer vs veteran, New South Welshman vs Queenslander, even brunette vs blond, if you like. On the one hand is Cleary, 24, the Penrith Panther who led his team to three NRL grand finals in the past three years, winning two of them, and to some the best player on the planet. And on the other is ‘DCE’ – 33, an NRL grand final winner in 2011 and a Clive Churchill medal winner playing in his second World Cup. And who led Queensland to a State of Origin series over Cleary’s Blues earlier this year and has an already established partnership with Cam Munster, it must be noted.
Choosing between them for Meninga has been like deciding on which of his children is his favourite, while the young naughty one, Munster, grins and watches on. But after giving DCE the reins against Fiji, letting Cleary destroy Scotland and giving them both minutes together against Italy, it is the Chocolate Soldier who has won the race. At least for now.
Cleary started against Lebanon in the quarter-final, with DCE providing utility value off the bench. Before the game Meninga cited the 24-year-old’s key partnerships with forwards Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin at both club and state level as a factor in his decision.
But Cleary, given the chance to shine, made an auspicious start in Huddersfield. In the second minute he hooked a kick straight into touch. Two minutes later his attempt to convert Josh Addo-Carr’s try hit a post. He made no mistake in the 16th minute when nailed the conversion for Addo-Carr’s second, which was right in front of the posts. But he sliced another conversion attempt from the sideline and it was James Tedesco ripping the Cedar tree from its roots early in west Yorkshire, not his young Aussie and NSW teammate.
In the 25th minute he missed another conversion, with his prowess with the boot failing him. His passing game was on song, and he fed his monstrous backs when they needed the ball, and found the right charging forward on cue. It was Cleary’s timely pass which put Angus Crichton through a hole, who then found Cam Murray for Australia’s fifth try. However, it was far from the nearly faultless performance he is used to giving.
Australia made short change of Lebanon at the John Smith’s Stadium, racing to an 30-0 first half lead, before piling on 18 mote points in the second half. At half-time Cherry-Evans came on for Tedesco, who suffered a cork, with Munster moving to full-back. It showed the versatility of the Sea Eagles star, and the benefit of having a fluid spine able to move seamlessly across positions. Cherry-Evans moved to five-eighth, and partnered with his younger rival well, demonstrating there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Cleary finished with six successful goal kicks from nine attempts, along with 105 running metres, eight tackle breaks, two try involvements but not a single try assist. The half-back played his part, but did not completely dominate at the home of Huddersfield Giants like his coach would have wanted.
Half-back dilemmas for the Kangaroos are as old as time itself. From Raudonikis vs Mortimer to Sterling vs Mortimer, Sterling vs Langer, Langer vs Stuart, Johns vs Kimmorley and more, until Johnathan Thurston and then Cooper Cronk paired up for nearly a decade. Such is the depth Australia enjoy, it’s a routine but vital debate.
While some of the rivalries have been bitter in the past, with the fiery Raudonikis once throwing the mild-mannered Mortimer’s suitcase out of a hotel window once on an international tour, and threatening to defecate on his bed, Cleary and Cherry-Evans has been all peace and love.
As the Kangaroos move on to the semi-final stage, and a likely meeting with neighbours New Zealand, Meninga is arguably no closer to making his mind up on his starting 7. It’s perhaps more sleepless nights staring at the ceiling set for the Kangaroos great. Fitting three into two or not, regardless of who gets the key green and gold jumper next Friday, the Australian team marches on towards another tilt at the Paul Barriere Trophy.