Plenty of tricks in Kiwis' trans-Tasman toolkit

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 12:00 13/10/2012
Benji Marshall
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REP TO PROTECT: Benji Marshall during the Kiwis captain's run at Dairy Farmers Stadium, Townsville, Australia.

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Sam Kasiano has the stature, Benji Marshall the reputation - and Issac Luke the target on his back in tonight's trans-Tasman test in Townsville.

Twelve months ago Luke infuriated the Kangaroos camp when he was involved in a dangerous "cannonball" tackle on Sam Thaiday as they thumped the Kiwis 42-6 in Newcastle - but the Australians are not seeking retribution, they simply want to curb the livewire hooker's influence at Dairy Farmers Stadium.

Luke is regarded as the snappiest dummy half runner in the NRL and those capabilities - rather than his aggressive streak - ensure he will be a focal point of the Kangaroos defensive strategy in the season-ending international.

Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens selected two specialist hookers in his 17-man squad - captain Cameron Smith and interchange option Robbie Farah - with the South Sydney rake in mind.

 "I think he's in career best form," said Sheens.

"The way he finished the season he is always a threat to the big Australian forwards. I've picked two hookers to help counteract Issac by making sure we put plenty of pressure on their ruck."

Luke made a belated start to the Rabbitohs campaign when he was suspended for pushing referee Jason Robinson out of the way during the pre-season Charity Shield against St George Illawarra and was then on his best behaviour until he was suspended for three games for a lifting tackle on fellow Kiwi Shaun Kenny-Dowall in mid-July.

The Hawera-born 21-test veteran also had an issue in August when he was dropped to reserve grade for a discipline breach but returned to make a telling contribution to South Sydney's first finals series since 2007.

Despite his time off Luke still led the NRL for dummy half runs (228 for 1894m), a statistic that has Sheens and Smith on high alert.

"He's certainly a huge threat to us if we don't control their big men," Smith admitted.

"If there's any sign of a quick play the ball or someone's late up off the ground Issac's going to be out of there and running.

"He's got a great instinct of picking a quick play the ball, his biggest threat is his speed and his strength so we have to try and control the speed of the ruck and minimise his attack."

The Kangaroos have successfully curbed Luke's influence in previous tests - notably the 2010 Anzac Test in Melbourne and they realise if he can be stymied again the Kiwis have no recognised alternative at dummy half.

Luke was backed up by the now retired Nathan Fien at Eden Park in April while Lance Hohaia and Aaron Heremaia also slotted in to his position before they headed north to Super League.

Warriors lock Elijah Taylor will be the conduit between a tackled player and the halves combination of Marshall and Kieran Foran if Luke is incapacitated - a gamble given the two-cap rookie will be filling an unfamiliar role.

"Only time will tell on that," said Sheen when asked if the Kiwis were taking a risk by not having specialist cover on the bench.

"If something happened and they lost him they could be. It's in the lap of the gods. You can cover most things, but you can't cover disasters."

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Taylor believed he was up to the challenge despite barely playing dummy half during the Warriors woeful season.

"I played hooker coming through when I was a junior in the 20s, Toyota Cup and Bartercard Cup. I haven't played there is a while but I've been training there since I've come into camp and two weeks prior," he said.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge. It's a demanding role, your service has to be really crisp so I have to make sure I can do my job as properly as I can."

Taylor conceded his service wasn't "top class" when he covered for Nathan Friend and Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney acknowledged the 22-year-old could not hope to replicate Luke's attacking thrust.

Luke's preference is to play the full 80 minutes but that hasn't prevented him supporting Taylor once the squad assembled last Sunday.

"He's always giving tips and a heads-up on about what to do," Taylor said.

"Nathan's been giving me some tips as well. I've had a lot of people to turn to and talk to."

- Fairfax Media

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