Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has taken the unprecedented step of including players’ families on this weekend’s trip to Fiji for a World Cup warm-up and sought the feedback of partners as he restores the aura around the Australian jersey.
A special charter flight will on Thursday not only carry the country’s best rugby league players to Fiji for a historic first appearance in the Pacific nation but also the players’ partners and children ahead of an arduous World Cup campaign beginning against England on October 27 in Melbourne.
As the players prepare for the abbreviated trial matches against both Fiji and Papua New Guinea in Suva on Saturday partners will be pampered, as after another long NRL season the prospect of being away from their loved ones for a further six weeks looms large.
During the recent shock switches by both Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita to play for Tonga ahead of New Zealand and Australia respectively, much of the discussion centred around family and culture.
Prior to leaving for Fiji, Kangaroos players stressed the importance of family in representing their country and NRL.com understands that the touring party this weekend has foregone any match payments so that their families could join them on tour.
When the squad gathered in Brisbane on Wednesday Meninga spoke separately to the players’ partners about his vision for the Kangaroos culture and the important role they have to play in it, inviting them to contribute their own ideas of what the national team should represent.
While his dad may still be intimidated by shaking the hand of Cooper Cronk, four-year-old Cooper Klemmer showed no such nerves when he met the Storm No.7 on Wednesday – “Dad, he’s got the same name as me!” – and the Bulldogs prop said that this weekend represented a wonderful opportunity to share a unique experience with his family.
“My kids mean the most. Me playing for them and putting a jersey on them. It’s pretty special and having them around here in camp will be pretty cool,” Klemmer told NRL.com of his motivation when he wears the green and gold.
“They love it. My oldest boy is starting to realise football but he doesn’t know the calibre of players he’s hanging around.
“In a couple of years’ time he’ll realise he was walking around and knew ‘JT’ (Johnathan Thurston) or Cameron Smith and realise what kind of aura they have in the game.
“He thinks they’re just his mates shaking his hand. It’s pretty special.
“Cooper is getting photos with Cameron Smith and Tyson Frizell. He doesn’t even realise how good a players they are, he’s just shaking their hand because they’re his mates.
“That will be awesome in 20 years’ time when he shows his mates.”
Ever since taking over the mantle as Kangaroos coach last year Meninga has been on a crusade to restore the awe for which the Kangaroos jersey has been held in the past, developing the RISE mantra of Respect, Inspire, Selfless, Excellence.
Klemmer defended the right of his New South Wales Origin teammate Andrew Fifita to choose to play for Tonga ahead of Australia but said the Kangaroos hold the same level of desire to represent their family on the world stage.
“The team values and the team culture, you want to be a part of it and you want to wear this jersey and be proud of it,” said Klemmer.
“You’re representing your family, your teammates, the people that have worn this jersey before you and set such a good example.
“The old players that played in this jersey before you, you’ve got to represent them, the people of this country and your teammates as well.
“(Fifita) obviously thinks that’s the right thing to do. Obviously he’s got Tongan background and he’s proud of that so he can go and represent them if he wants.
“He made the choice and he’s going to represent Tonga and good luck to him. He’s representing his family as well.”
Ben Hunt’s son Brady turned one last weekend and with his wedding to long-time partner Bridget Hagan clashing with Australia’s November 3 clash with France, the former Broncos half need not look too far for inspiration.
Back in the Australian team for the first time in three years, Hunt said he immediately noticed Meninga’s family focus and how that translates to greater meaning in wearing the Kangaroos jersey.
“I’ve only been in and around it for a week now and that’s something that I’ve noticed pretty quickly, that’s something that he drives,” Hunt said.
“It’s more than just football, it’s about your family and what you do away from the field and everything like that. It’s pretty refreshing.
“I definitely play for my family, that’s the biggest one for me. Any part of my family that’s been involved with my career going back to mum and dad taking me to junior games and through to my partner now, Bridget.
“She’s been unreal for me the last few years and supporting me and our little son.
“I just want to make them proud.”