Matt Timoko should have played for New Zealand at the World Cup. He didn’t, and the man that made that choice is now training him at the Raiders.
It’s an interesting wrinkle that Timoko is well aware of. These pages were clear about whether Timoko should have been playing for New Zealand in the recent World Cup (hint: big fat yes). This was vindicated by the difference between Australia and New Zealand in the semi-final of the World Cup was the dexterity and power of the Roo edges, where Michael Maguire chose Peta Hiku (an excellent and worthy selection) and former Raider (and normal fullback) Charnze Nicholl-Klokstad to play centre. Maguire landed on this pairing after also trialling backrowers Marata Niukore and Briton Nikora throughout the heats. Current teammate and centre brethren Seb Kris made the squad, but never played centre, playing one (lopsided) game on the wing against Jamaica. Safe to say Madge probably could have used a handy player like Timoko.
Outside of Hiku there wasn’t a centre of Timoko’s quality in that line-up. As we’ve noted before
He [Timoko] ran for more metres than any Raider other than Josh Papalii or Joe Tapine. Nic Cotric was the only back with more tackle breaks. He picked up nine tries and five try-assists, and improved his defence despite shifting sides and partners throughout the season…And of course that all crested when he made Cameron Munster look like the rookie taking on the star when he threw him to the ground in the elimination final.Me
Given Timoko’s unquestionable potential, and the substantial likelihood that he will play a part in New Zealand sides in the future, it was surprising Timoko never even made the squad, let alone a starting spot. According to Timoko, the communication line as to why this occurred was clear.
He [Maguire] just said ‘look there’s a few things we need to work on in terms of defence and stuff’. But with him being here it’s going to help out a lot more, not only getting Ricky’s opinion but I’m getting Madge’s opinion as well,”
It’s not surprising. Timoko’s defence is a work in progress. Earlier in the season we identified the challenges he was facing as a relatively newcomer. In short, centre is arguably the most difficult defensive position on the field, one in which you must make split-second decisions that not only require you deciphering opposition plans on the run, but that bind your team to that decision. Kudos to Maguire for making his views clear, and while Madge knows more about football than I could know in a thousand lifetimes, it felt like a short-sighted and frankly verging on panning Matthew for something the replacements he chose couldn’t muster either.
But defence at the centre is a big responsibility for (mostly) young players to take on, and Timoko is not flawless. In fact it’s really the only questionable aspect of his game. Timoko sometimes got caught trying to be patient and quicker players got around him. Other times he was poor in contact, and that was all bigger players needed to get a break. But given it was his full first season in the top line you can understand him not being perfect. Given his relative inexperience, and the fact he switched sides and partners like your mum (boom gotcha) he did really well.
Alas, that wasn’t enough to get him into the New Zealand squad. My major read of their decision was that Madge had intended to play Hiku and Nicoll-Klokstad as the starting options. After that it was about utility – they played second-rowers and fullbacks at centre, centres at winger. Timoko is a centre, and if we’re being serious, only a centre. His best skill is done in punishing runs, in attack but also in yardage, and with the host of unrelenting middles the Kiwis had in tow his skill base may not have been as important.
While there would have undoubtedly been benefits to playing international football, this situation is not without its advantages. Maguire obviously has a clear idea of what Timoko needs to do defensively and how to fix it. He has high expectations of him, and from what the young centre said above, seems to have a good capacity to communicate.
Maguire may have made a blunder in not taking Timoko to the World Cup. But if he the expectations he has of Timoko remain high, and if he’s able to support the young centre to improve his defence, it could be the making of the man.
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