Mal Meninga admits he is still undecided has Nathan Cleary done enough to usurp current Australian half-back Daly Cherry-Evans ahead of the Rugby World Cup knockouts.
Cleary and Cherry-Evans starred alongside each other in Australia’s stunning 66-6 win over Italy that capped the Kangaroos’ unbeaten group stage campaign.
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After the 12-try defeat that set up a quarter-final clash against Lebanon on Saturday, Meninga indicated he would abandon his rotation policy for the business end of the tournament.
Cleary and Cherry-Evans enjoyed playing at half-back and five-man against the Italians, with both switching roles at half-time.
There was a growing sense that two-time Penrith premiership winner Cleary had overtaken the Manly captain as Meninga’s preferred option to partner regular five-man Cameron Munster in the halves for Australia.
Cherry-Evans admitted after the Italy game that he would respect whatever decision Meninge made, even if it meant he played his last World Cup match.
“Don’t get me wrong, I want to be in the final 17 but those decisions are out of my hands, I’m really proud of the two games I’ve won for Australia,” Cherry-Evans said.
“I hope it’s not the last, but if it is, we’ll have to see.”
Meninga intermingled with his side in the group stages, giving Cleary, Cherry-Evans and Munster each one of the three games of the break.
However, the Kangaroos coach says Meninga can’t sleep at night because he will opt for the knockout stages of the tournament – where his rotation policy will end.
“I had a dream last night about what the team should be like,” Meninga admitted.
“How important the bench is and things like that.
“You’re thinking about it all the time and I have to agree on something soon.
“It’s very important that I have this honest conversation with the players that this is the reason why they were released.
“There is still pressure because there is another great No7 who can still break into the team.
“I think (the players) all understand that we’re going to have our best team from the quarterfinals on.”
The Australians killed Italy
The Kangaroos were handed their toughest test of the tournament against a spirited Azzurro but were still able to race into a 30-0 half-time lead thanks to a first-half brace from Murray Taulagi and tries from Campbell Graham, captain James Tedesco, Valentine Holmes and Latrell Mitchell.
After the break, Cherry-Evans moved to half-back and Cleary moved to five-eighth.
“It’s a dynamic that could cause headaches, but we’ve stuck to it pretty well and worked pretty well,” Cleary said.
“We didn’t step on each other’s toes.”
Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin crossed after half-time, but the loudest cheer of the night came when Campbelltown-born Rinaldo Palumbo scored for the Italians, diving home with a shot into the box in the 53rd minute.
Cameron Murray, Graham, Jeremiah Nanai and Lindsay Collins hit back to reassert Australia’s dominance.
Italy have continued to fight, but the real battle will come within the Kangaroos squad this week when Meninga plants either Cherry-Evans or Cleary and tells them why they are not his first choice in the No.7 role.
“I knew what I was signing up for, Mal told me before I arrived that it would be an open competition and I would have to fight for a place,” Cherry-Evans added.
“I was either going to play for Australia (deep into the tournament) or I should have been a bit unselfish and done something for the young group that came through.
“Ideally it’s on the field, but if not, I’ll still help this group.”
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