Jack Wighton will line up in the halves for the Junior Kangaroos this weekend. Photo: Colleen Petch
He's played just two hours of football in five months, but Junior Kangaroos coach Kelly Egan has backed Jack Wighton's fitness to hold up when he returns to five-eighth against New Zealand this Saturday.
The Canberra Raiders youngster last wore the No.6 jersey in round one of this year's Toyota Cup, before he was promoted to the NRL ranks on the wing.
His progress was hampered when he injured his toe in a trampolining accident, resulting in a lengthy stint on the sideline.
Wighton's shift back to the halves could be viewed as a gamble, especially given the match will be played in Townsville's energy-sapping humidity. But the unflappable teenager proved his ability to respond to a challenge with a solid performance in Canberra's NRL finals loss to Souths, his only full match since May.
''He's continued to train on since the Raiders have been out of the competition, he's worked pretty hard, so I don't see it being an issue for him,'' Egan said.
''We've tried to keep things pretty simple for him, but we're just backing his ability to be a good defender and run the ball on the right occasions. I think when you're playing in good teams at his age, it certainly gives you a bit of confidence.''
Egan consulted Raiders coach David Furner, who reassured him Wighton would be able to handle the extra workload despite his lack of game time.
''We've done our homework, we knew he had a background playing there and he'd be able to handle it,'' Egan said.
''After talking to Dave pretty early in the piece and Jack as well, I certainly didn't make the decision off the cuff. He's got a good range of game awareness, too, which helps us with our confidence in picking him at five-eighth.''
Wighton's selection at centre against the Rabbitohs made him ineligible to play in the Toyota Cup grand final against Wests Tigers.
The 19-year-old could only watch in frustration from his Orange family home as the Tigers handed the Raiders a 46-6 lesson.
Halfback Jacob Miller played a starring role in Wests' victory, but Wighton said his Kangaroos halves partner has kept the sledging to a minimum. ''He's been good there, hasn't been too much banter about it,'' Wighton said.
''I would have loved to have been out there with the boys, but they did well to make it that far.
''I think centre is my best position at this point in time, but we'll see what happens in the future.''
Egan was reluctant to discuss Wighton's best position during the early stages of his first-grade career with Canberra. He faces a stiff test to regain his position next year given the abundance of riches in the Raiders' back line.
Jarrod Croker and Blake Ferguson have made the centre spots their own, while Sandor Earl and Reece Robinson were outstanding on the wings this year.
His task will be made greater by the return of Terry Campese and the emergence of young halves Josh McCrone and Sam Williams.
''At the moment Dave sees him as an outside back, a centre or a winger, and that's a good place to learn your trade at his age,'' Egan said.
''He's got a long way to go, so he'd probably be happy to be exposed to a few different positions and increase his opportunity to cement a spot somewhere.''