Halfback headache a dream scenario for Mal

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Mal Meninga says the mental anguish of anointing Daly Cherry-Evans or Nathan Cleary as his first-choice halfback has begun to filter into his dreams.


Meninga paired Daly Cherry-Evans and Nathan Cleary together for the first time in their 66-6 victory over Italy to round out the group stages of the Rugby League World Cup.

After a 12-try rout in front of 5586 fans in St Helens ahead of a likely quarter-final against Lebanon, the Kangaroos coach said he would be ditching his rotation policy and picking the strongest team possible henceforth.

Meninga has tinkered with his side throughout the group stages, giving each player one of the three games off.

Wingers Campbell Graham and Murray Taulagi grabbed try-scoring doubles to put pressure on the Australia coach but the real question is this: who will partner Cameron Munster in the halves in Huddersfield next Friday (Saturday AEDT)?

Cherry-Evans looked assured playing at five-eighth in his 17th Test to set up two tries, while Cleary took time to grow into the game before finishing the evening with nine from 12 conversion attempts and registering three try assists.

It's a decision which looks set to define the Kangaroos' direction at this tournament and one which is beginning to affect Meninga, even when he attempts to get some sleep.

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

"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."

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 Taulagi and tries to 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."

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 said.

"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."

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