Kieran Foran to step up for a 'shattered' Shaun Johnson amid fears of season-ending knee injury
Kieran Foran has put the onus on himself and the rest of the senior players to step up and save the Warriors' season as they face the prospect of finishing the year without leading playmaker Shaun Johnson.
Friday night was meant to be a memorable one for the Auckland rugby league club as they farewelled UK-bound Manu Vatuvei, but it ended in disaster as they threw away a winning position to lose 34-22 to the Penrith Panthers, and their star playmaker picked up a possible season-ending injury.
Johnson suffered the injury as he sprinted on attack late in the match. The potentially serious knee injury could force the star half out for the remainder of the NRL season and also the Kiwis' World Cup campaign.
While the Warriors will learn the full extent of the damage over the weekend, Kearney admitted the initial signs were not promising, evoking memories of the 2015 season when the club lost its last seven games after Johnson broke his ankle.
Rookie five-eighth Ata Hingano will almost certainly take Johnson's place for next week's trip to Townsville against the Cowboys, but the pressure of Johnson's absence will fall greatest on the team's senior players; Foran, skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Issac Luke and Simon Mannering.
"It certainly does," Foran said. "If he is out he's going to be a huge loss, you can't replace a guy like that.
"It's going to come down to the leadership group, everyone stepping up a notch and collectively as a group everyone's going to have to play that little bit better.
"It's going to be hard to deal with but I'm sure we'll get through it."
For all the criticism Johnson receives, his game had been building nicely over the last six weeks following a flat patch during the middle of the season.
The 26-year-old had been shouldering the bulk of the general kicking duties, leading the NRL in kick metres, and is currently equal first in try assists with Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans.
While Johnson appeared to have suffered a leg injury in the final play of the first half, it was an innocuous-looking play that forced him from the field as he pulled up lame without any contact while supporting Luke.
Foran revealed he cut a "shattered" figure in the dressing room after the match.
"He's not too sure what it is. We've haven't been told exactly what the final outcome is but he was pretty disappointed.
"It's hard to take any injury let alone one like that that happens all of a sudden. We're just getting around him and hoping he's going to be OK."
As for the Warriors' finals hopes, the Dragons' golden-point defeat to Canberra on Friday means they remain four points outside of the top eight.
However, they have little room for error, needing to win at least five of their last seven games to have a chance of finishing in the playoff positions - an unlikely scenario given their lack of consistency throughout the season.
The finals were the last thing on Kearney's mind on Friday as he focused on addressing a woeful last 13 minutes that saw them concede three tries after leading 22-18.
The capitulation came shortly after Johnson's departure, which Foran felt played some part in their demise.
But until they learn to win the close games they will continue to miss out on the big games in September, let alone become a premiership threat.
"It's huge to lose a player of Shaun's calibre out there in a tight contest with 18 minutes to go. It's pretty difficult to adapt but in saying that we should've done a better job," Foran said.
"We were still ahead at that point and we should've been able to close the game out. We just allowed them to break our line too easily and we needed to be a bit more grittier.
"There's still plenty of belief there. We've tried hard but we just haven't won those close games this season and that's been the disappointing part."