AUCKLAND: Mal Meninga knows there is a suspicion that Australia are finally vulnerable as they begin life without the Big Four.
"People think that, but we don't,'' Meninga told the Herald as his Kangaroos prepare to run out on Saturday evening without Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston for the first time since their retirements.
The mass exit of the future Immortals with a combined 162 Tests worth of experience can be likened to the Australian cricket Test team, which farewelled champions Shane Warne, Justin Langer and Glenn McGrath at the same time more than a decade ago.
New blood: Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary will steer the Kangaroos around on his Test debut.Credit:NRL Photos
As experienced Kiwis forward Adam Blair said this week: "The Australian team are just as good and full of young and exciting players, and that's their future, but if there's any time [to meet them], I guess there's no time like the present.''
Cronk and Smith will punch out one more season in clubland – there is no doubt about Smith extending his time and possibly reaching 400 NRL games with the Storm – while Slater and Thurston are into their retirements.
Some inside the Kangaroos camp this week have already noticed the changes without Smith, who had such a presence on and off the field. Meninga said it was sad for the game to see the back of such players, but there was also a sense of excitement about the new direction and style of play the Kangaroos will embrace.
Fans will get a glimpse of that new brand, which will focus largely on the running games of debutant hooker Damien Cook and fullback James Tedesco, when one of the youngest Kangaroos teams Meninga has been involved with tackles New Zealand at Mt Smart Stadium, followed by the highly-anticipated historic Tongan Test seven days later at the same Auckland venue.
"Our expectations remain the same, it's the Kangaroos jersey and you're playing for your country,' Meninga said. "I've been around long enough to understand the greats of the game do retire or move on, and that enables someone else else to take spot.
"You can never replace those guys, but you bring in guys with different talents. I think you'll see a different way the Kangaroos will play. You win games on attitude and character and defence, so we'll come ready to put desired effort in there and build off that.
"There have been a lot of discussions around how we want to play, we won't play the way we have been playing, we'll play to our strengths. We have a new hooker [Cook] who has definitive strengths. These guys are our best players and won't let their country down.''
While the Big Four who also enjoyed sustained success with Meninga for Queensland have had nothing to do with the current campaign, the coach was keen to see them leave a different legacy further down the track.
"I've always said I'd like them to be involved in the game in some form, be it coaching at rep level like Queensland, which John and Billy have already done, and eventually the Australian team,'' Meninga said.
"A few games and a few years down the track it [the mass exodus of experience] will be forgotten about.
"It's a young Australian side, the average age is abut 26, and this is the youngest side I've been involved with in a while. I remember the 1994 team I played in when I was about the oldest fella there.
"We don't talk about the dawn of a new era or lost players who might have been in this footy team – it's about being a Kangaroo and what's important about being a Kangaroo and the expectations of being a Kangaroo.''
While Darius Boyd and Greg Inglis, who was stood down for the two Tests because of a drink-driving and speeding charges, are also missing from the Kangaroos, the team does roll out the green and gold carpet for debutants Tedesco, Cook, Latrell Mitchell and Luke Keary.
New Zealand coach Michael Maguire knows all about Keary and won a premiership with him at Souths in 2014. But Maguire preferred to discuss the Kiwi talents, rather than who was or was no longer playing for Australia.
Blair spent six seasons playing along side Smith, Slater and Cronk at Melbourne, and said of the former: "In my opinion he's one of the best players if not the best player in the world at what he does.
"He organises the team, puts you into the right places at the right time and I don't think there's anyone in the competition who does the things he does.''
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