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New Zealand Rugby League chief Phil Holden has defended the Kiwis’ team selection for Friday’s Test against Australia and their handling of the Stilnox scandal that rocked their World Cup campaign last year.
Stephen Kearney’s side will take the field at Allianz Stadium missing a host of their leading players, including Sonny Bill Williams, Kieran Foran, Issac Luke, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, because of injury or the indifference of selectors.
While Williams was never going to be considered because he is switching back to rugby next year, the omission in particular of Sydney Roosters teammate Waerea-Hargreaves came as a shock to the player, his club and the opposition.
The make-up of the Kiwis’ line-up has increased calls for the midyear international to be scrapped, and triggered suggestions they aren’t taking the trans-Tasman Test seriously.
That is vehemently rejected by NZRL boss Holden, who says New Zealand don’t want the annual contest to be reassessed.
‘‘We want to play more international football, not less,’’ Holden said on Wednesday. ‘‘For us, international football has been a cornerstone of the commercial base of New Zealand rugby league for a long time.
‘‘Right now for us, this game, the midyear fixture, is hugely important because we don’t play enough international football. We want to play more.’’
New Zealand also enter Friday’s Test in Sydney with the spectre of last year’s controversial episode after their quarter-final win over Scotland – when some players mixed sleeping pills and energy drinks, leading to an internal investigation – lingering.
Williams and Foran are said to be angry that they were implicated in the scandal via reports in the New Zealand media after the World Cup, and there was continuing intrigue about the impact of the incident on the New Zealand squad for Friday. The snubbing of 25-year-old Waerea-Hargreaves led to queries over whether he was linked to last year’s controversy before Fairfax Media’s report on Wednesday revealed he had instead been dropped on the strength of previous performances for New Zealand.
The absence of the front-rower robs the Test of another genuine drawcard amid fears of a poor crowd, but Holden defended the selection bombshell.
‘‘We’re just dealing with the reality of what we’re dealing with,’’ he said. ‘‘But I can assure you that the selectors have the total backing and support of NZRL. They’re never going to pick a team or an individual that they didn’t think would deliver. So I’m very relaxed about it.’’
Holden is comfortable with how the Kiwis had dealt with the Stilnox investigation, which found their preparation for the World Cup final against Australia was compromised by up to six players mixing the sleeping pills with energy drinks.
After forwarding on the findings of their inquiry to Rugby League Central in Sydney, Holden plans to meet with NRL chief operating officer Jim Doyle on Thursday to discuss what lessons that can be learnt in the NRL from the Kiwis’ experience.
The NRL is finalising plans to begin testing in midyear for two classes of prescription drugs as part of a study to examine the extent of their abuse by players.
‘‘We had to engage with them because … basically all our players are playing in the NRL,” Holden said. “We’ve shared some of our findings in that space and I’ve actually got a meeting with them tomorrow to talk specifically about some of that stuff.’’
‘‘For us it’s always been about player welfare. There [can be] unintended consequences of some of that activity because no one really understands what the long-term effects might be. We’ve been very clear it’s never been about naming players or finger pointing, it’s all around player welfare and how do we support them.
The NRL’s testing will initially be for data-gathering purposes only this year, and any player testing positive will be counselled rather than reprimanded.
“The use of prescription drugs is spoken about anecdotally, but we want to understand whether there is an issue in the game,” NRL head of integrity Nick Weeks said. “By the end of the year, we will know if prescription drugs are a problem and then we can take steps to remedy this.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.