Elijah Taylor filling unexpected role for Kiwis
Elijah Taylor is accustomed to filling in some fairly large football boots and Saturday's trans-Tasman test against the Kangaroos in Townsville is no exception.
The 22-year-old was tasked with emulating Micheal Luck's resolute, defence-orientated play at lock in just his second NRL season this year - an assignment he tackled with relish as he established himself as an automatic choice in the New Zealand Warriors starting pack.
Taylor, who made his NRL and test debuts in 2011, proved an admirable deputy for the injury-plagued Luck, who has subsequently retired to Far North Queensland to begin an office job with the Cowboys from 2013 onwards.
The durable Hawera-born back rower logged a Luck-esque 908 tackles and missed just one of the Warriors' 24 games before they finished a disappointing 14th.
Taylor made his test debut against Wales at Wembley during last year's Four Nations tournament but was unable to add to his two caps when overlooked for April's Anzac Test at Eden Park.
That 2012 defeat for the Kiwis was ultimately Nathan Fien's final test and with Aaron Heremaia plus Lance Hohaia now playing in the Super League, Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney has recalled Taylor as starting hooker Issac Luke's back-up.
Luke will be a focal point of the Kiwis attack at Dairy Farmers Stadium and is regarded as one of the NRL's most penetrative and explosive runners from dummy half - qualities that will see him heavily marked by the Kangaroos.
Kearney hopes Luke, a standout at South Sydney despite an off-field indiscretion seeing him temporarily dropped by Michael Maguire late in the regular season, will play an integral role in the Kiwis attempt to win their first trans-Tasman test since the 2010 Four Nations final in Brisbane.
But should the rigours of a long season take its toll or he succumbs to the pressures expected to be applied by the Australians then Taylor will step into the breach.
"Issac's been playing big minutes for South Sydney so Elijah will provide an opportunity to give him a spell if he needs a spell," said Kearney, who unveils his 17-man line-up today.
On his official website Taylor lists hooker as a position he is capable of playing though at the Warriors he is considered a lock or second rower.
Australian Nathan Friend, Alahana Mara and Pita Godinet shared the hooking role as the Warriors slumped from beaten grand finalists to 14th.
In recent years the Kiwis selectors have chosen not to bring back Super League players from England for one-off trans-Tasman internationals or the annual Anzac test and with Fien announcing his retirement before the 19-man squad was named, Taylor has earned an opportunity to expand his skill set at the highest level.
Ideally Luke would play the majority of the test, although with heat and humidity likely to be a factor the interchange benches are likely to figure prominently.
The Kangaroos have adhered to convention and named two specialist hookers - captain Cameron Smith and the Wests Tigers' Robbie Farah - a potentially significant point of difference for the Four Nations holders.
Kearney accepted Taylor would purely be a link to the halves combination of Benji Marshall and Kieran Foran rather than a yardage gainer off the ruck and although his exposure to the role was minimal he was confident the fast-maturing rookie could slot in if and when required.
"I don't think it's a big adjustment," Kearney said.
"Elijah's a smart footballer. We'll lose Issac's runs out of dummy half but he's a clever footballer and he'll be able to provide the same platform."
Recalled wing Sam Perrett is also a nippy dummy half runner and often deviates from his wing to try and sneak some ground up the middle of the park.
Anzac Test debutant Shaun Johnson and uncapped Penrith-bound utility back Dean Whare are likely to be confined to the stands in Townsville with Marshall and Foran assured of starting in the halves when the team is named.Warriors captain Simon Mannering probably retains the centre berth he occupied in April although if the selectors are in the mood to gamble against a star-studded backline Whare will finish the year as a fully-fledged international and second rower Kevin Proctor could again miss the cut.