Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has declared Nathan Cleary would be Australia’s long-term halfback after unseating Daly Cherry-Evans for the role in this weekend’s World Cup quarter-final against Lebanon at Huddersfield.
Cherry-Evans, who made his Test debut as a 22-year-old in 2011, had to wait until after the 2017 World Cup to inherit the Kangaroos No.7 jersey but because of COVID he had only played four Tests before the tournament in England.
After giving Cleary and Cherry-Evans 120 minutes each as halfback in Australia’s pool games against Fiji, Scotland and Italy, Meninga opted for Cleary because of his right edge combination with Penrith team-mates Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin.
Cherry-Evans will play the bench utility role, with Meninga wanting Harry Grant to play 80 minutes at hooker, and he is on standby on for Cleary, who has been suffering from a virus sweeping the Kangaroos camp.
Meninga himself has been sick but he joked that may have been caused by the stress of having to choose between Cleary and Cherry-Evans, who is the most capped member of the Australian squad with 17 Test appearances since debuting against Wales in 2011.
“It is more to do with combinations, obviously Nathan works with Isaah and Marto on the right edge,” Meninga said. “That swung it towards Nathan.
“It was tough, and I gave him [Cherry-Evans] that exact reason. It is probably a poor reason when you think about it, but it just went down to those connections at club level.”
Match Highlights: Australia v Italy
Meninga, who missed training on Tuesday, was confident that Cleary would take his place against the Michael Cheika-coached Lebanon but has the option of calling on Cherry-Evans if needed.
“Obviously he is disappointed and that is what you want him to be, but you never know in this tournament,” Meninga said. “Nathan has got the front running at the moment and we hope he takes it.
“Chez is on the bench just covering. We have got a few illnesses at the moment, and a few niggles, so we will just see how things pan out this weekend, but from my perspective Nathan is winning that at the moment.
“He trained today but he has just had a bit of a gastro bug. We want him playing really well tomorrow.”
With the decision made on Australia’s first choice halfback, Cleary appears more comfortable calling the shots with the likes of Cameron Munster, James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell, Jake Trbojevic and Cameron Murray in the team.
At just 24 years of age and with back-to-back premierships to his name with Penrith, Meninga said Cleary was destined to be Australia’s halfback for the foreseeable future.
Cleary magnificent on debut
“I made sure that everyone had an opportunity to play their best footy and put me under pressure to make these decisions. I thought both of them did that and I had some sleepless nights,” Meninga said.
“It’s hard to explain to the person who has missed out what that reason is but it’s his [Cleary’s] jersey now so it is the start of his career in rep footy, certainly playing for Australia, and I would like to see him have it for a long, long period of time.
“I noticed during the week he has started to talk a lot more and he has taken control of the footy team, which is what we want.
“I think Chez has been right up there with him and he is the incumbent. It just so happens that we haven’t had international footy for three years.”
The halfback call pits Cleary against Eels halfback Mitchell Moses in the second winner-takes-all encounter in a month after the pair played opposite each other in the NRL grand final.
Match Highlights: Lebanon v Jamaica
Moses will partnered by Wests Tigers playmaker Adam Doueihi, with Jacob Kiraz returning to play fullback for the Cedars outfit, which has strike out wide through Josh Mansour and Abbas Miski, and an enterprising forward pack.
Under Cheika, Lebanon have produced some surprise tactics in matches, enjoying success with short kick-offs against the Kiwis and making six one-on-one strips in the first half against Ireland.
“Lebanon are playing some really good footy, they were very expansive last weekend,” Meninga said.
“They have got some really talented players in their halves, the wingers are doing really well, Kiraz at fullback is doing really well and there is the aura of Michael Cheika, and what rugby union can bring to rugby league, so I am pretty sure they will have some tricks.”