Menzies makes the news

Dave Hadfield applauds the power of Australia's young free-scoring forward
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The Independent Online
IT SAYS much about the changed shape of rugby league in its centenary year that the most obvious threat to New Zealand in today's second semi- final of the World Cup comes not from a flying Australian wingman but from a flying Australian second row.

Steve Menzies is a player for the second century of rugby league, a skull- capped avenger who could become the most prolific try-scorer in international history if the game's politics allow him to carry on playing for Australia and he maintains anything like his current strike-rate.

One near-certainty is that Menzies, who has scored four tries in his two World Cup appearances so far, will finish this tournament as its leading try-scorer. There have been potent, match-winning second-row forwards before, but none has underlined his credentials quite as forcibly.

Last season in Australia, for instance, he became the first forward to end up top of the try-scoring list for 50 years and the first since 1918 to cross for 20 tries. "It's not something I've worked on consciously," he said. "But playing with good ball-players such as Cliff Lyons and Nik Kosef at Manly doesn't hurt."

Essentially, Menzies says, he does what any good second-row tries to: he backs up the man with the ball, especially when that man is adept at getting it away a fraction before the defensive line swallows him up. They all do that - but they do not all score 20 tries a season. That is what makes Menzies stand out from the pack.

"I think the 10-metre rule has had something to do with it," he said. "It has opened it all up and you can't get away with slow forwards any more." Although Menzies has the speed of a back and once spent half a season in junior rugby playing at full-back, he does not rate himself as an exceptional speedster. "I don't do sprint training with the backs if I can help it," he said, "although I can keep up with one or two of them."

Menzies, in fact, puts little emphasis on his astonishing try-scoring record. "I don't keep a count," he said. "In fact, I'd give away the tries in return for a win in a couple of games we've lost."

Those losses include a Grand Final defeat by the Sydney Bulldogs in his last match before leaving for England, followed by the opening match of the World Cup at Wembley, where Menzies scored two tries and still finished on the losing side.

"It was a big thrill to be there, because I wasn't picked for the Test at Wembley last year," he said. "It was an enormous atmosphere, but what would be really excellent would be to go back there for the final."

The team standing in the way is New Zealand and, despite playing in three victorious Australian sides against the Kiwis already this year, Menzies is far from dismissive of them. "We had three pretty close games and we are wary of them, because they are a good side. There has been a lot said about the weaknesses, but we have been focusing on their strengths."

One strength they lack is a strike forward such as Menzies, who is expected to cross the whitewash virtually every time he plays. Despite that celebrity, he remains, at 21, an unassuming figure. A true Manly local - he was born in the hospital just down the road from their Brookvale ground - he has played for no other club since graduating through their junior ranks.

Nor was he tempted, like some other Manly players, to break ranks with the club and sign up with Super League. He has always been, he says, perfectly happy under the Australian Rugby League's wing. The apotheosis of the modern second-row forward he may be, but he is a traditionally minded rugby player as well.

Britain has known that he is something special since last year, when he opened the Kangaroo tour with a display of rangy, destructive running that cut Cumbria to shreds.

The intervening 12 months have shown that he can do the same to far sterner defences. Like New Zealand's this afternoon, for instance, and there would be few bets against him doing some serious damage at Wembley on Saturday.