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NZ coach has fingers crossed for Matai

By Mark Geenty 03/10/2008 01:44:45 PM Comments (0)

New Zealand rugby league coach Stephen Kearney expects Manly centre Steve Matai will be available for World Cup selection but has his fingers crossed for no injury drama in Sunday's NRL grand final.

That might be tricky, with Kearney sitting in the Melbourne coach's box and Matai playing for the opposition.

As Kearney prepares to name his 24-man World Cup squad on Tuesday, he said Roy Asotasi (pectoral) and Frank Pritchard (shoulder) were the only two definite scratchings from his list of contenders.

Matai requires end-of-season arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome right shoulder to clean up bone fragments, but has stated his hope to delay it until after the World Cup, assuming he gets through the grand final unscathed.

The blockbusting centre played a starring role in Manly's 32-6 win over the New Zealand Warriors last Saturday, despite aggravating an old neck injury and appearing to struggle with his shoulder problem.

"I haven't been in contact with Steve this week for obvious reasons, but my reports are that he is available, and until I hear otherwise that's how it is," Kearney told NZPA.

"Steve's had a problem like that all year and he started the season late, but he's been able to manage it."

Kearney offered a hint of his plans in the All Golds squad named this week, including Nathan Fien, who looks set to slot back into a Kiwis jersey after the Grannygate controversy of 2006.

He will likely contend with Thomas Leuluai for the No.7 jersey alongside five-eighth Benji Marshall, or back-up first-choice hooker Issac Luke.

Bulldogs halfback Ben Roberts has been cleared to pursue a Samoan spot after being told he wasn't in the frame.

"Nathan's fortunate that he can play either position. It's no coincidence the form of the Warriors, him guiding the group around has helped," Kearney said.

In Asotasi's absence, Parramatta's 34-Test veteran Nathan Cayless will likely regain the Kiwi captaincy.

While prop Asotasi, first-choice second-rower Pritchard and code-switching star Sonny Bill Williams are huge losses, Kearney insisted the future looked bright for the Kiwis, who have a daunting start to the tournament against the Kangaroos at the Sydney Football Stadium on October 26.

"For the first time in a while it's all about who we're going to leave out," Kearney said.

"I don't think we've been in that position for quite some time, even taking into the account the guys who are unavailable. I'm very optimistic."

The 16 players named alongside Ruben Wiki, Logan Swann and Stacey Jones against New Zealand Maori on October 12 seem assured, leaving eight spots open.

Up to four of those could come from Kearney's Storm - forwards Jeremy Smith, Jeff Lima, Adam Blair and uncapped youngster Sika Manu, who made a big late-season impact.

Warriors forward Simon Mannering has been rested from the All Golds match after a torrid season but will also return.

Kearney said he would inform all his players of their selection this weekend, although World Cup organisers have requested the announcement be delayed until Tuesday so as not to clash with the Kangaroos' team naming on Monday.

Possible Kiwis World Cup squad: Nathan Cayless (capt, Parramatta), Adam Blair (Melbourne), Greg Eastwood (Brisbane), David Fa'alogo (South Sydney), Nathan Fien (Warriors), Lance Hohaia (Warriors), Krisnan Inu (Parramatta), David Kidwell (Souths), Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Jeff Lima (Melbourne), Issac Luke (Souths), Simon Mannering (Warriors), Sika Manu (Melbourne), Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers), Steve Matai (Manly), Jason Nightingale (St George Illawarra), Sam Perrett (Sydney Roosters), Sam Rapira (Warriors), Jerome Ropati (Warriors), Setaimata Sa (Roosters), Jeremy Smith (Melbourne), Iosia Soliola (Roosters), Manu Vatuvei (Warriors), Brent Webb (Leeds).

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