Kiwi halves a worry for Kangaroos coach
Fear of the unknown has Australian rugby league coach Tim Sheens on edge as he attempts to come up with a gameplan to corral free-spirited New Zealand halves Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson.
Skipper Marshall and Test debutant Johnson loom as the aces in the Kiwi pack heading into Friday night’s Eden Park blockbuster, with their off-the-cuff style of play proving a headache for veteran tactician Sheens.
“Although they’ll probably try and play with more structure, that unpredictability is still something that concerns me,” said Sheens, noting that Marshall had earlier on the week said he would curtail some of the flair from his game.
“I’ll be happy if they play with structure because we’ll know what’s coming.
“It’s that little bit of footwork and that ‘show and go’ that they’ve got.
“I know where they’ll be coming, through the middle at us, a lot of dummy-half running.
“If the young halves start playing off the back of that we’re in trouble.”
For Sheens to suggest he doesn’t know what to expect of Marshall says something of the 27-year-old’s unpredictability, given he has played his entire NRL career under Sheens at Wests Tigers.
Marshall and Johnson are almost carbon copies of each other – both tremendously light on their feet and with brilliant peripheral vision thanks to childhoods spent plying their trade on the touch footy field.
New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney denied he had attempted to shackle Marshall, admitting it would be an exercise in futility as the Kiwis search for their first win in a mid-year Test in 14 years.
“He’s been at the Tigers ten years … it hasn’t worked,” Kearney said in reference to Sheens’ attempts to cut down on Marshall’s penchant for the flamboyant.
But Kearney said Marshall couldn’t be relied upon to do it on his own.
“If we look back at Benji’s best performances with the Kiwis it’s come on the back of a team performance,” Kearney said.
“Watching him over the last couple of weeks with the way the Tigers have been going, I think he’s taken on a bit more of a role where he’s pushing the team around.
“I think that’s helped him and that will be really beneficial for us tomorrow night.”
“He’s (Marshall) had some rough moments during the year but he’s also had some brilliant touches,” Sheens said.
“Most of the points we (the Tigers) score are as a result of something he does – there are plenty of points in him.”
There are plenty of points in the Australians too – particularly with the in-form Melbourne spine of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk now running the show.
“It makes my job pretty simple and it makes the rest of the team’s pretty simple because they’ve got that combination and all the calls down pat – they know what’s going on,” Kangaroos prop Paul Gallen said of the Storm trio.
“It’s obviously a big plus for us and a big plus for any team they’re playing in because they’re probably the three best players in the world in their positions.”
But the Kiwis believe they’re more than capable of fighting fire with fire.
“If Benji’s playing his best footy and Shaun’s playing his best footy and the team are playing their best footy, I’m sure that regardless of who the opposition is, we’ll put some pressure on them,” Kearney said.© AAP 2013