OPINION: Kangaroos pick Knights newbie

Australia has selected 11 debutants for the upcoming Four Nations including one player – Sione Mata’utia – who has played just seven NRL games.

Ten rookies is a huge number and that number rose to 11 today with the shocking news that Jarryd Hayne is off to join the NFL. Penrith fullback Matt Moylan comes into the squad to replace Hayne.

The Kangaroos have been rocked by injuries and unavailability, from Billy Slater and Jonathan Thurston to Paul Gallen, Nate Myles, Darius Boyd and many others. A lot of players involved in this year’s State of Origin series can’t play in this Four Nations.

Australia took an ageing squad to the 2013 World Cup and needed to bring in some new blood. But has Tim Sheens gone too far? Is he showing disrespect to New Zealand, England and Samoa?

The 24-man squad Sheens has named is light on props and overall experience in some positions. He has rewarded 2014 NRL form, including several players from grand final opponents South Sydney and the Bulldogs, such as Alex Johnston and Josh Jackson, but also thrown a lifeline to the likes of Josh Papalii who was dropped by Canberra this year.

But the biggest surprise came in the selection of Newcastle Knights youngster Sione Mata’utia. He’s just 18 and only made his NRL debut in round 20 this year.

He’s on target to become the youngest-ever player to play for Australia, eclipsing Israel Folau, who was pretty handy at rugby league. If he gets a run in the Four Nations he’s also on target to be the second-least experienced player ever to wear a Kangaroos jersey, joining the legend Reg Gasiner.

There’s no doubt that Mata’utia is an exciting prospect, he scored seven tries in his seven NRL games. He can play wing, centre and fullback, and reportedly tore Papua New Guinea up with the Prime Minister’s XIII in their 18-point win.

Born in western Sydney but raised in Newcastle since he was five years old, Mata’utia was a junior star. In 2011 the outside back with Samoan heritage won the Knights Under-16s Players Player Award and played for NSW’s Under-16s. In 2013 he won the club’s award for the best Under-17 player, represented NSW’s Under-18s and captained the Australian Schoolboys. This year he played for NSW’s Under-20s, was named in the National Youth Competition’s Team of the Year and was also selected by both the Junior Kangaroos and Samoa’s Four Nations train-on squad.

A month later and he is set for a senior debut for Australia.

It’s a stunning rise.

But with 10 debutants already in the team, Sheens is taking a risk. Mata’utia might only see game time against Samoa, but some of the other rookies will have to feature against the Kiwis and Poms.

The Kangaroos’ front-row rotation does not look as strong compared with England and New Zealand’s, and Australia will need big-name campaigners like Inglis, Cronk, Smith, Bird, Thaiday and Parker to lead from the front.

It seems strange that when the likes of Will Hopoate were ignored and just three recognized props – Papalii, Woods and Klemmer, were picked.

Australia still has enough talent and class to win the Four Nations. Younger members like Cherry-Evans, Jennings, Guerra and Coydner know how to win big games, they’ve played in grand finals and won Orgins.

But it’s not going to be easy. This could be the closest Four Nations in years.

Here’s the Australian XVII I would go for:

1 Greg Inglis
2 Daniel Tupou
3 Michael Jennings
4 Dylan Walker
5 Alex Johnston
6 Cooper Cronk
7 Daly Cherry-Evans
8 Aaron Woods
9 Cameron Smith
10 Josh Papalii
11 Greg Bird
12 Sam Thaiday
13 Corey Parker

Bench:
14 Robbie Farah
15 Aiden Guerra
16 David Klemmer
17 Ryan Hoffman

Australia’s 24-man Four Nations squad

Greg BirdGold Coast Titans
Daly Cherry-EvansManly Warringah Sea Eagles
Boyd CordnerSydney Roosters
Cooper CronkMelbourne Storm
Robbie FarahWests Tigers
Aidan GuerraSydney Roosters
Matt MoylanPenrith Panthers
Ryan HoffmanMelbourne Storm
Ben HuntBrisbane Broncos
Greg InglisSouth Sydney Rabbitohs
Josh JacksonCanterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Michael JenningsSydney Roosters
Alex JohnstonSouth Sydney Rabbitohs
David KlemmerCanterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Josh MansourPenrith Panthers
Sione Mata’utiaNewcastle Knights
Josh PapaliiCanberra Raiders
Corey ParkerBrisbane Broncos
Beau ScottNewcastle Knights
Cameron Smith ©Melbourne Storm
Sam ThaidayBrisbane Broncos
Daniel TupouSydney Roosters
Dylan WalkerSouth Sydney Rabbitohs
Aaron WoodsWests Tigers