Johnstone: Time Tomkins, Marshall stepped up

DUNCAN JOHNSTONE
Last updated 15:00 14/03/2014
Benji Marshall
STAND UP: Both the Warriors and the Blues need to make statements this weekend in demanding circumstances.

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OPINION: Guilty of the same inconsistencies in selection and performance, the Warriors and the Blues need to make statements this weekend in demanding circumstances.

And their star signings - Sam Tomkins and Benji Marshall respectively - need to step up to the mark.

Whatever is in Auckland's water certainly seems to affect the city's 13-man and 15-man footy teams.

They are guilty of frustrating their temperamental fan base with a mix of bungles and brilliance, and that's already been laid bare in 2014 campaigns that have barely started.

The Warriors were simply awful in their NRL debut opener against the Eels last weekend after a preseason demolition of the touted Broncos had promised so much.

The Blues were similarly disappointing in Pretoria against the Bulls, a week after lighting the imagination with their demolition of the Crusaders in Auckland.

It's the Warriors turn to front at Eden Park this weekend, and tomorrow's encounter with the Dragons has all the makings of a banana skin, given their terrible record at rugby HQ.

The Warriors have never won the NRL title, offering two nervous performances in grand finals that ended in sorry defeats.

The Blues boast three Super Rugby titles, but the last of those was in 2003.

If the teams are to be contenders this year, they need to turn into believers this weekend.

The Warriors need to bury that Eden Park bogey and the Blues need to make a statement on the road with a decisive victory against the Lions at the intimidating Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

Both will attempt these assignments with the selection wheel already spinning like the centre piece of a roulette table – and the associated feel of gambles that shouldn't really be necessary.

It's exciting to see Marshall being given a start, but a huge admission that handing him the No 15 jersey three rounds into the season is a long way from the dreams of him being the answer to the problem that has plagued this franchise at No 10.

The theory is that Marshall will find it more comfortable to find his feet in rugby at the back.

But there isn't a more difficult place to play fullback than Ellis Park. Marshall's positional play will be tested severely.

He will be peppered with high balls and long balls that travel with deceptive speed and distance on the Highveld. His lungs and legs will be under the pump in a sporting environment where oxygen is a treasured commodity.

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It's bemusing that the Blues have Marshall playing at fullback when its been the home of their most effective back in recent times, Charles Piutau, whose play there last year was good enough to make him an All Black and perhaps Steve Hansen's best rookie.

Now, to accommodate Marshall, Piutau slips out to the wing, where his effectiveness is lessoned simply in ball-supply terms.

That's a big concession.

The Warriors have a similar puzzle in their backline.

The hugely expensive and highly hyped Tomkins was a non-event in his NRL debut. The diminutive Brit found some harsh realities in the wild west of Sydney.

His positional defence was suspect and his ability under the high ball alarming – what world-class fullback takes his eyes off the ball when fielding a bomb?

Quite why the Warriors have spent all that money on Tomkins is another puzzle when they already have an international fullback in Kevin Locke and adequate backup in Glenn Fisiiahi, who is now apparently the target of tempting offers to lure him away.

The Warriors have had a major deficiency in the centres for a while now.

They would have been better to spend the big money on getting a top-drawer centre to Auckland to give them the attacking-defending co-ordination that a player like Brent Tate once provided.

Last week, coach Matt Elliott played Carlos Tuimavave out of position at centre and the team paid the price, with his defensive uncertainty in this crucial position sorely exposed.

Tuimavave paid the price; dumped down to reserve grade, where he is back in his more accustomed position at standoff.

It's an early admission by the Warriors that they've been found short in an area where they have been regularly exposed in recent times.

It's early days in both these campaigns and there is time to right some wrongs.

But the quick selection shuffles give little confidence that the seasons of both teams will be nothing unusual – another rollercoaster ride mixing the sublime with the ridiculous.

- Fairfax Media

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