Kiwis coach David Kidwell says team needs to help take pressure off Shaun Johnson
New Zealand coach David Kidwell has stood up for under-fire halfback Shaun Johnson as his battered Kiwis squad embark on the defence of their Four Nations trophy in England.
A change in scenery failed to get the best out of Johnson as he struggled in the Kiwis' 26-6 defeat to the Kangaroos on Saturday and, not for the first time this year, the knives are out for the Warriors playmaker.
The early signs in Perth were promising with Johnson taking the ball to the line and committing the defence to set up Kevin Proctor's try to get his team back in the match.
Unfortunately for the former Golden Boot winner, that was as good as it got.
New Zealand's highly-rated forwards were largely outplayed by their smaller rivals but when they did wrestle back the momentum, Johnson's decision making was found wanting. He struggled to gel with his right-side attack, while his fifth-tackle options were particularly poor.
Kidwell, who was dealt another blow on Tuesday when Simon Mannering was ruled out of the Four Nations with a knee injury, says Australia did a good job of targeting Johnson in defence which in turn blunted his work with the ball.
He's called for the entire team to step up and help relieve the pressure on the 26-year-old - and that includes with the kicking game.
"If you have a look at the stats Shaun had a massive defensive workload, over 34, 35 tackles," Kidwell said. "That's obviously sucking up his juice."
"That's a team thing that we need to control the ball better so that helps him on attack.
"Obviously our fifth-tackle options we need to work on but, again, I think that's a team thing, making sure we get into our right positions so we can have two options on kicks and we'll address that at training."
Johnson was part of a number of Kiwis players who were playing their first game in six weeks but Saturday's lacklustre display continued an indifferent season for the star No 7, albeit one that was affected by injury.
Even if Kidwell wanted to go in a different direction for the Four Nations opener against England next Sunday (NZ time), he is limited by his options in the halves.
Along with starting five-eighths Thomas Leuluai, 21-year-old rookie Te Maire Martin is the only other recognised playmaker in the squad.
But it would be a brave call to bank on a player with only six NRL games behind him - the last of which was in April - in a game which will have a major bearing on the Kiwis' hopes of reaching the final.
Johnson, of course, wasn't the only one who came up short against Australia.
Centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall had his worst performance in a black and white jersey, while prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves did little to justify his recall to the test arena.
Kidwell says it is too soon to contemplate any changes and will closely monitor the team's execution at training before settling on his lineup for the England clash.
"You've got to take into consideration some guys haven't played for a while and we'll make that decision when we get over there at training," he added.
"It will be a collective decision with the coaches and we'll just look at how everyone pulled up. We're not going to rush into making any decisions, we're going to take our time."
The Kiwis depart for the UK from Auckland on Wednesday and of main concern for the coach was getting the players over the travel factor.
Apart from the 2013 World Cup semi-final, when Johnson stunned the host nation with a last-gasp try, the Kiwis have found success hard to come by in England in recent years.
Kidwell has placed huge emphasis in quickly adjusting to the foreign conditions.
"That's just one of the challenges travelling over there.
"We haven't been successful there as a team for 10-plus years so it's going to be a really challenging Four Nations, but one that everyone from the staff, myself and players included are really looking forward to."