Thursday, 19 January 2012
Queensland and Australian selectors will get their first look
at Cooper Cronk stepping into Darren Lockyer's boots next month when the Melbourne halfback links up with Benji Marshall for the NRL All Stars.
For the first time since the All Stars concept arrived, Marshall will not be lining up in the No.7 jersey alongside the champion five-eighth, who retired at the end of last season, for the February 4 match against the Indigenous All Stars at Skilled Park on the Gold Coast.
Lockyer's exit leaves vacancies in both the Australian and Queensland sides, with Cronk heavily favoured to slot in to partner Indigenous All Stars halfback Johnathan Thurston, who will shift to five-eighth.
Cronk, one of ten debutants in the NRL All Stars team, was selected by the fans to line up for the All Stars in the annual clash, with Bennett endorsing the selection and Cronk's long-term future in representative football.
"Cooper is one of the top NRL players and is starting to play a fair bit of rep football now and obviously with Darren's retirement he'll play a lot more," Bennett said on Thursday at the team announcement.
"I'm looking forward to working with him. He's a real professional I reckon."
The Indigenous All Stars boast potent attacking weapons Thurston and Parramatta's Chris Sandow in the halves, but Bennett backed his duo to lead the way.
"Benji at five eighth and (Cronk) at halfback ... they've got a couple of halves themselves who are very good but we can match them in that area," Bennett said.
Marshall, who like Australian captain Cameron Smith was an automatic selection, admitted to being excited by the prospect of playing alongside another one of the game's smartest playmakers - having played with Lockyer in the first two All Stars games.
"Getting the privilege to play with guys like Darren Lockyer pretty much made it for me being a part of this concept," said Marshall, who will skipper the side.
"But when you see guys like Cooper coming through, who will probably take over from Locky, I'm excited."
For the second year in a row Cronulla skipper Paul Gallen led the fan voting with over 8000 votes, while fan favourite Nathan Hindmarsh and Gold Coast veteran Luke Bailey round out an experienced pack.
Bennett used one of his coach's picks to select newly-appointed Penrith captain Luke Lewis - noting that Lewis's versatility and skillful play at lock made him an ideal bench player in the exhibition match.
Lewis only missed out on the initial voting because Panthers team-mate Michael Jennings was called up following the late withdrawal of Wests Tigers centre Chris Lawrence.
"I've always had a lot of time for him as a player," Bennett said.
"I think he brings a lot of things to teams."
St George Illawarra halfback Ben Hornby earned the other coach's selection, for his ability to cover the halves, hooker and fullback - with Newcastle's Kurt Gidley unavailable for selection.