Only Darren Lockyer and Cameron Smith wore the green and gold more times than Mal Meninga, so when the Kangaroos coach talks about making the Australian jersey the pinnacle, his words come with authority and authenticity.
The only man to have made four Kangaroo tours, Meninga played 46 Test maches between 1982 and 1994, and later enjoyed unprecedented success as Queensland Origin coach before taking over from Tim Sheens as coach of the national side in 2015.
Meninga has made no secret of his desire to see the green and gold jumper regain its status as the most prestigious honour a player can achieve and his Kangaroos squad will regularly be reminded of past glories during their six-week stay in the UK.
“I think understanding your past is really important to move forward with your future so at the moment it’s great to talk about our stories, how we position ourselves, what we need to do to be successful,” Meninga said at this week’s World Cup launch.
“I go back to when Origin started in Australia, and how passionate both states were and that’s what we are trying to create in an international space.
“I always thought the green and gold jersey was the ultimate in personal recognition because it meant you were the best player in your position.”
“We’ve handled pressure and expectation for a long time and you accept it, you carry it on your shoulders and you prepare accordingly”
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga
The NRL Hall of Famer is leading the most inexperienced Kangaroos squad in World Cup history with 13 uncapped players on board, but Meninga revealed that drawing on passion rather than experience is what will bring success.
“As a coach, you go with your heart, and I know that all my 24 players want to put the green and gold jersey on so that helps me with my preparation because I know they want to be here and that creates a stronger competition,” he said.
“I think we’ve planted some really good seeds early, the players are really excited about being here. They’re all on board and all want to pull a green and gold jersey on.
“We want passionate players putting on the country’s jersey and when you have passion, you’ll find success.”
Having come away victorious at eight of the past nine World Cups, the Kangaroos are entitled to go in as favourites, but Meninga says the strength and depth of the opposition will ensure his team stays laser focused.
“We’ve handled pressure and expectation for a long time and you accept it, you carry it on your shoulders and you prepare accordingly,” he said.
“We’re not an arrogant footy team, there’s no place for arrogance. We’re a confident footy team and I believe with confidence and keeping your feet on the ground, heads out of the clouds and working hard, it’ll lead to success for us.”
For skipper James Tedesco, leading the Kangaroos for the first time on Sunday against Fiji will be the pinnacle of his rugby league career.
The 29-year-old is one of the few players with previous experience of touring England, having been part of the Italy side at the 2013 World Cup.
“I don’t think there’s a higher honour than being able to captain your country, I’ve had a lot of achievements in the game but this is definitely the highest,” Tedesco said.
“I was very proud to get an opportunity to represent Italy, where my dad’s family is from, in 2013 and 2017.
“But I was born and raised in Australia, Mum is Australian, so for me there’s no higher honour than pulling on the Australian jersey.”
The Roosters fullback revealed that Meninga had put a huge focus on each player’s origins during the first week in camp… where they come from, who they are and what being in the Aussie team means to them.
“The meetings do get a bit emotional. A lot of them are about our stories, our families and where we come from,” Tedesco said.
“I’ve found there’s a lot of similarities. A lot of guys come from country towns in Australia and have always had a dream to play rugby league for their country.
“Previously maybe (Aussies didn’t take the World Cup seriously) but since Mal has been in charge he’s definitely brought that pride and passion back into the jersey.”