Shaun versus Benji contest has Kearney thinking about future
Glenn Jackson
September 16, 2011

SOMETIMES it’s what’s not said that says the most. Like yesterday, when Stephen Kearney’s slightly nervous laugh gave away more than the answer which preceded it.

Kearney was talking about the match-up between Shaun Johnson, the Warriors halfback, and Benji Marshall, the Tigers five-eighth, when he simply couldn’t resist stating what has become quite obvious.

‘‘He’s got attributes which are very similar to Benj. The pace and the sleight of hand, they’re very Benji,’’ Kearney said. ‘‘That makes him a real prospect.’’ And then the laugh. Because while he is a real prospect, Johnson is also a young one at just 21. And an inexperienced one, having played just 13 matches.

Advertisement: Story continues below Already not only are some predicting he will be the next Benji Marshall but also many believe he will play with the present Benji Marshall - in the New Zealand side. Which is why Kearney, who as the Kiwi coach has something to gain from his development, so quickly checked himself.

‘‘The important thing for everyone is to remind ourselves he’s played 13 games,’’ Kearney said. ''We liken him to Benj, but we’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to throw all that on his shoulders and expect him to run with it straight away. He’s got a lot to learn. You’ve got to keep pinching yourself that you can’t expect the world from him.

‘‘But he’s got some things there you can’t coach - I know that much.’’

Johnson has scored six tries in those 13 matches - including one against Brisbane which would be in any highlights package of the 2011 season. It had the evasiveness and speed of a young Marshall, who made his debut with some fanfare in 2003.

Both players have been schooled on touch football fields, and both are part of Generation YouTube; their exploits on the touch field available for anyone with an internet connection. The vision of Johnson, remarkably, is far more popular than recent footage of Marshall.

John Ackland, who coached Johnson in the premiership-winning Warriors under-20 squad last year, said his vision came from his touch football background. ‘‘He’s prepared to throw the long ball,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s probably a skill that he’s developed in touch. And he can challenge NRL defences with it. He’s got the ability to see it and do it.’’

Johnson, who has Laotian heritage, is somewhat different to Marshall in that, while he played a lot of touch football, he also played 13-a-side, with Hibiscus Coast. So he developed the ability to cope with the rigours of a contact sport while also honing some talents.

Marshall, on the other hand, played rugby union and touch football - and wouldn’t have it any other way. While he has his knockers, and scar tissue, it’s difficult to argue the point when you consider his present standing. In his soon-to-be-released autobiography, Benji Marshall; My Game, My Story, the Kiwi captain says of his touch background: ''When you play touch football, it’s harder to evade people, because all they have to do is touch you.

‘‘It might hurt more, but it’s easier to evade people in rugby league when they have to tackle you to stop you. Everything I would eventually do when I played rugby league came because of what I had learnt on the touch football oval. Touch has done wonders for me.’’

There are some very obvious differences between the two men. Johnson, who also played Aussie Rules when he was younger, has a wonderful kicking game, while Marshall had to hone his after his debut. And while Marshall had to leave New Zealand for his talents to be realised, Johnson was spotted and developed in the country. That, says the former Kiwis halfback Stacey Jones, is why Johnson is an important player.

But he also sees the two hot-steppers as being irresistibly linked.

‘‘They’ve both got very good footwork,’’ Jones said. ‘‘They’ve got speed, electric speed, and they can hold it over a distance. Benji’s got a lot more experience, but Shaun will get that.’’

But beneath all the grand statements about Johnson, there remains a wariness. While we all could look ahead and consider Marshall playing with Johnson as well as against him, his Warriors coach Ivan Cleary just wants him looking at him.

‘‘I’d rather Shaun, in particular, not worry too much about Benji, other than when he’s in front of him,’’ Cleary said. ‘‘It’s not really Shaun against Benji in my opinion. Both players have their roles for their team and I just want Shaun to focus on what he does best and his role for us.’’

Which has a very Benji look to it. Says Kearney: ‘‘It’s going to be a real learning curve for him, playing against (Marshall) in this pressure situation. That needs to be part of his development. We want him to be around in 10 years’ time, 12 years’ time, having been polished up. Obviously (tonight) is part of that stepping stone.’’