IT hurts them to admit it, but Australian stars Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis concede New Zealand have displaced the Kangaroos as rulers of the rugby league world.
But the match-winning halfback and centre are intent on helping Australia reclaim that ranking, starting with the Four Nations trophy the Kiwis won by upsetting the Kangaroos 16-12 in the final in Brisbane last year.
Apart from being the reigning Four Nations champions, New Zealand won the Centenary World Cup in 2008 and the Warriors qualified for the NRL, NYC and NSW Cup grand finals earlier this month, leaving Thurston under no illusions about who sits atop the international pile.
Thurston, who will line up in the halves alongside retiring captain Darren Lockyer in Australia’s warm-up Test against New Zealand at Ausgrid Stadium on Sunday, said the Kiwis now had the depth to cover the loss of key players like Manu Vatuvei and Steve Matai.
He said they would have their hands full trying to contain Kiwis skipper Benji Marshall and premiership-winning Manly playmaker Kieran Foran.
‘‘No doubt in my eyes, they’re the number-one rugby league nation in the world, and I think if we thought we were, it would be disrespectful and we’d be kidding ourselves, actually,’’ Thurston said yesterday, after being named captain of the Indigenous All Stars for the annual pre-season exhibition on the Gold Coast on February 4.
‘‘I don’t like it, but no doubt it’s good for the game. I think the Warriors got a lot of coverage over there [for making the grand final] during the Rugby World Cup, which is great ... and now the Tests, so hopefully that gets a lot more coverage as well in the international game.
‘‘They’ve got some mobility in their forwards, offloads, they’ve got some exciting outside backs, and their halves: Benji’s the best in the world and Kieran Foran’s just won a premiership.
‘‘No doubt there’s a lot of confidence in their team and no doubt they should feel confident, because they’re a very good team and we’re going to have to play to the best of our ability to beat them. If two or three of us are off, it’s going to make it very hard for us.’’
Thurston’s Cowboys teammate Kalifa Faifai Loa, called into the squad on Monday as a replacement for Vatuvei, will be one of five Kiwis making their Test debuts.
Inglis, who missed the Four Nations last year due to shoulder surgery, will not play on Sunday after clean-up surgery on his knee last month.
But he was confident of being available for the first game of the tournament, against New Zealand at Warrington on October 28.
‘‘They probably like to go in as underdogs, but I think we’re all on JT’s comments, that we hate to admit it, but they definitely are the number-one side in the world,’’ Inglis said.
‘‘For them to hold the trophy up last year, sitting at home watching it pretty much hurt, so we have to try to break their hold. Their three [Warriors] sides made it to the grand final this year and one walked away trumps, but it just goes to show they’re not too far behind the [club] rugby league world in Australia.’’
Inglis conceded Chris Lawrence and Willie Tonga, named in the centres against the Kiwis on Sunday, had the chance to get the jump on him but he backed his own ability to regain his spot for the Four Nations Tests against New Zealand, England and Wales.
‘‘Missing out last year has made me more hungry this year. There was a bit of doubt but before I went and saw the surgeon last Monday, I went for a gallop on Thursday and that made me more confident that he would give me the nod,’’ he said.
‘‘I spoke to [Australian coach] Tim Sheens during the two weeks to this build-up and he was pretty keen to have me on board, and the selectors were as well.
‘‘I was never close for this game, it was more about over there, and getting through this week and the next two weeks and probably strap the boots on over there.’’
Thurston and Inglis are keen to send Lockyer into retirement as skipper of the team that regained the Four Nations trophy.
‘‘This is his last game on Australian soil and people will remember that, so there’s 17 individuals that need to do their job on Sunday to get the result,’’ Thurston said. ‘‘Locky’s the type of person to not make it about himself, so everyone needs to do their job.’’
Having combined with Lockyer to help Queensland win the past six State of Origin series, Inglis wants to win one more international title with his inspirational skipper.
‘‘That was in the back of my mind,’’ Inglis said.
‘‘It’s a bit upsetting that I won’t play with him in his last game in Australia – but hopefully we can get a win over there and come back with the trophy.’’