Mal Meninga's admission about Nathan Cleary amid World Cup drama

Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga says he still hasn't decided between Nathan Cleary and Daly Cherry-Evans for the Australian No.7 jersey. Pic: Getty
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga says he still hasn't decided between Nathan Cleary and Daly Cherry-Evans for the Australian No.7 jersey. Pic: Getty

Mal Meninga admits he's still undecided about whether Nathan Cleary has done enough to usurp incumbent Australia halfback Daly Cherry-Evans, ahead of the knock-out stages of the Rugby League World Cup.

Cleary and Cherry-Evans starred alongside one another in Australia's thumping 66-6 victory over Italy, that rounded out the Kangaroos' unbeaten group stage campaign.

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Following the 12-try rout that sets up a quarter-final showdown against Lebanon on Saturday, Meninga indicated he would ditch his rotation policy for the business end of the tournament.

Cleary and Cherry-Evans both had a crack at playing halfback and five-eighth against the Italians, with the pair swapping roles at halftime.

There has been a growing sense that two-time Penrith premiership-winner Cleary has overtaken the Manly captain as Meninga's preferred option to partner regular five-eighth Cameron Munster in the halves for Australia.

Cherry-Evans admitted after the Italy game that he will respect whatever decision Meninga makes even if it means he's played his last game at the World Cup.

“Don’t get me wrong I want to be in the final 17 but those decisions are out of my hands, I am really proud of the two games I got for Australia,” Cherry-Evans said.

“I am hoping that’s not the last one but if it is we will just have to see.”

Meninga has tinkered with his side throughout the group stages, giving each of Cleary, Cherry-Evans and Munster one of the three games off.

However, the Kangaroos coach says settling on his starting halves for the knockout stages of the tournament - where his rotation policy will come to an end - is keeping Meninga up at night.

"I had a dream last night about what the team should be," Meninga admitted.

"How important the bench is and things like that.

"You're constantly thinking about it all the time and I've got to settle on something very soon.

"It's really important that I have that honest conversation with the players that this is the reason why they missed out.

"There's still pressure, because there's another great No.7 still able to push his way into the team.

"I think they (the players) all understand that from quarter-finals onwards we'll have our best team."

Aussies put Italy to the sword

The Kangaroos got their toughest test of the tournament against a spirited Azzurri but were still able to rack up a 30-0 lead at halftime courtesy of a first-half double from Murray Taulagi and tries to Campbell Graham, captain James Tedesco, Valentine Holmes and Latrell Mitchell.

After the break Cherry-Evans became the halfback with Cleary switching to five-eighth.

"It's a dynamic that could have caused headaches but we stuck to it pretty well and we worked pretty well," Cleary said.

"We weren't stepping on each other's toes."

Seen here, Australia coach Mal Meninga looks on at the Rugby League World Cup in England.
Australia coach Mal Meninga has a tough decision ahead of him as the Kangaroos prepare for their World Cup quarter-final against Lebanon. Pic: Getty

Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin all crossed after halftime but the loudest cheer of the night came when Campbelltown-born Rinaldo Palumbo scored for the Italians by diving on a grubber kick into the in-goal on 53 minutes.

Cameron Murray, Graham, Jeremiah Nanai and Lindsay Collins hit back to reassert Australia's dominance.

Italy kept fighting but the real battle will come from within the Kangaroos squad this week when Meninga sits one of Cherry-Evans or Cleary down and tells them why they aren't his first-pick in the No.7 role.

"I knew what I was signing up for, Mal told me before I came that this would be an open competition and that I'd have to fight for a spot," Cherry-Evans added.

"I was either going to be playing for Australia (deep into the tournament) or having to be a bit selfless and do something for a young group coming through.

"Ideally that's on the field, but if not I'll still help this group."

with AAP

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