Johnson ready to fill Marshall's role for Kiwis

Shaun Johnson.Getty Images
The first Wests Tigers fans to arrive at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night caught a glimpse of life after Benji Marshall when Luke Brooks piloted the Tigers under-20s side in their curtainraiser for the Warriors-Tigers NRL clash.

Then, from a Kiwis perspective, Shaun Johnson provided further evidence that Marshall's impending departure from the NRL for rugby might not be as significant now as it might have been, say, in 2009. That year, he considered temporarily swapping codes and playing in Japan.

Marshall has yet to confirm his future but, if scheduled talks with Sir John Kirwan are fruitful in Sydney today, the Blues coach would prefer the 28-year-old to refresh, then potentially play for the Barbarians in England against Combined Services and Fiji.

Those fixtures clash with the Kiwis' World Cup defence in the UK, Ireland and France, and while coach Stephen Kearney and captain Simon Mannering are unsure of Marshall's next move, it seems unlikely he will add to his 27 caps.

Johnson, formerly Marshall's understudy, now seems assured of a prolonged spell in the Kiwis No 7 jersey alongside nuggety Manly Sea Eagles standoff Kieran Foran.

An emotional Marshall made his final appearance at Leichhardt. Tellingly, though, it was Johnson who provided the clinical touches before the Warriors overcame a slow start to score 18 unanswered points and close out a 24-14 victory that keep their playoff hopes alive.

Johnson scored twice, was denied a hat-trick by a whisker, and then set up the match-winner for Mannering - the high points of a composed display that featured eight runs for 202 metres, a linebreak, try assist, perfect kicking record and just one error.

In contrast Marshall, who had two more sets to play with, made three runs for 20m, some wonky passes and three errors.

"Shaun had an awesome game, he put on some massive plays for us," said Warriors standoff Thomas Leuluai, who is in contention for a test recall when the Kiwis try to repeat their heroics at Brisbane in 2008 and retain the World Cup.

Leuluai caught up with Marshall after the fulltime siren but couldn't anticipate his next move.

"I had a brief chat with him after the game, not about football, just as a mate. He seemed good."

Although his powers appear to be on the wane, Marshall will undoubtedly be missed.

"It's going to be a massive loss for rugby league, especially in New Zealand. A lot of kids back home enjoy watching him play and look up to him as an idol. Those are the things he's going to leave behind and those kids are going to miss him very much," former Kiwis vice-captain and current Wests Tigers prop Adam Blair said.Meanwhile, Ruben Wiki, the Kiwis most-capped test representative, wished Marshall well, and felt the succession plan was in place.

"He's given great service for the Tigers and the Kiwis, he's captained his country, we's won a premiership, the World Cup . . . there comes a time in your career where you have to weigh up options," he said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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