HAD it not been for a hamstring injury to Kieran Foran, 23-game NRL rookie Shaun Johnson would be sitting in the stands at Eden Park tonight watching the Anzac Test with the fans.
Instead, Johnson will be the supporting act for New Zealand lynch pin, the brilliant skipper Benji Marshall. As the Kiwi halves, Marshall and Johnson have never played together and that is where the homeside faces its greatest dilemma.
Although 59-Test record holder Darren Lockyer will not be lining up in the green and gold for Australia, "newcomer" Cooper Cronk has played 13 Tests already and is a veteran of 191 NRL appearances.
On paper, and in reality, the match-up in the halves is a mismatch, because Kangaroos five-eighth Johnathan Thurston (22 Tests) found his best form of the season in Darwin last weekend.
Stacey Jones, regarded as perhaps one of New Zealand's greatest halfbacks, is a mentor to Johnson at the Warriors and concedes the 21-year-old may well be out of his depth in the Test arena.
"He has all the ingredients to make a great player, but he's still learning the game," said Jones. "This is a Test match and he's going to have to go out and perform, but the benefits of tonight are more likely to be seen later in his career."
The odds are stacked hugely against the Kiwis, even though they are playing at home. It is 14 years since they last won a Test in April, they have scored just two victories in their past 17 Test against the Kangaroos and Australia has won both Tests previously played at Eden Park.
Early fireworks are expected and the forward exchanges will be brutal, but once the heat goes out of the contest Australia will dominate defensively. And their strike power, particularly in the centres, gives them a huge advantage.
New Zealand: Josh Hoffman, Jason Nightingale, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Simon Mannering, Manu Vatuvei, Benji Marshall (c), Shaun Johnson, Sam McKendry, Issac Luke, Ben Matulino, Frank Pritchard, Adam Blair (vc), Jeremy Smith. Inter: Nathan Fien, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jesse Bromwich, Alex Glenn.
Australia: Billy Slater, Darius Boyd, Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges, Akuila Uate, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Paul Gallen (vc), Cameron Smith (c), David Shillington, David Taylor, Sam Thaiday, Luke Lewis. Inter: Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hannant, James Tamou, Anthony Watmough. 18th man: Matt Gillett.
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