Kiwis hope for the 'big one' in Townsville
CHRIS BARCLAY IN TOWNSVILLE
The New Zealand Warriors coaching drama and Sam Kasiano's test debut have loomed large over tonight's trans-Tasman clash in Townsville, and Benji Marshall has realised it is time he took prominence under the lights at Dairy Farmers Stadium.
One of the code's highest profile players, the Kiwis captain has endured a nightmarish season at the under-performing West Tigers and was candid enough to admit his contribution to the national side had also been below par since New Zealand's triumphant Four Nations campaign two years ago.
Marshall's role in the Kiwis securing that title was reflected in his selection as league's Golden Boot winner in 2010 but since then his influence has waned on the international stage.
The 27-year-old playmaker was largely ineffectual throughout April's Anzac test at Eden Park, where he was upstaged by debutant Shaun Johnson, and with the Kangaroos halves pairing of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk primed to reprise an understanding honed during State of Origin, Marshall is on notice to step up.
Marshall equals Gary Freeman's captaincy record of 19 tests, an accolade that was no cause for celebration given the responsibility of leadership has had a detrimental effect on his role as the Kiwis offensive co-ordinator.
“There's no denying it, I even say it myself,” said Marshall, who assumed the captaincy in 2009 and wants to prolong his reign.
“The last couple of years internationally I haven't played as well as I would have liked to.
"Whether that's down to putting the tricks away or not ... people write what they want.”
Marshall hopes to showcase the verve of yesteryear in what is essentially the first of two trial matches leading into the Kiwis' defence of the World Cup crown they won in 2008.
And should Marshall rediscover his flair, it will compensate for a forgettable year dominated by his club's failure to qualify for the top eight, the removal of mentor Tim Sheens as head coach, and the offloading of popular team-mates Beau Ryan and Chris Heighington to Cronulla.
Asked if the one-off test was an opportunity to at least finish 2012 in a good frame of mind, Marshall was adamant.
“Absolutely. To get away from the drama that's happening back in Sydney - it was a great relief to come into the Kiwi camp and enjoy the boys' company and get back to what I love doing - playing.
“I'm keen for a big one.”
A rare Kiwis victory - they have flunked all but three of their past 20 tests against the Kangaroos - would also be timely 12 months out from the World Cup.
“It's important for us to win one of these one-off test matches just for our confidence,” said Marshall, aware the last time the Kiwis beat their neighbours outside of a tournament was in 2003 in North Harbour.
“There's no doubt we come together as a group in a tournament environment, we get better as weeks go on but what we've put in place here, hopefully we can start something new.”
In contrast to an ageing Kangaroos' lineup dominated by established stars, the Kiwis selectors have opted to introduce new blood with a view to the World Cup - five of the squad are 22 years old, including debutants Kasiano and Dean Whare, so tonight's experience should at least be character-building.
New Zealand lost the corresponding fixture 42-6 in Newcastle last year but were confident of being more competitive, given the presence of Kasiano, and premiership-winning Melbourne Storm duo Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor.
The pressure on Marshall has been alleviated by Krisnan Inu - arguably the comeback story of 2012 -being entrusted with the goal kicking while Kieran Foran's return divides the playmaking responsibilities.
Still, despite the unbridled enthusiasm of the newcomers and the stabilising influence of Simon Mannering, the Kangaroos approach their task without trepidation.
The Storm's spine of Billy Slater, Cronk and captain Cameron Smith is aligned, while Thurston and Greg Inglis are in sync with the Melbourne trio thanks to Origin.
“Combinations always help when you have a short preparation,” said Marshall's counterpart.
“Having myself, Cooper and Bill there, you can include JT as well - we've all played in the Queensland team together for a number of years and in tight situations that experience helps,” Smith said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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