Leuluai the man for faithful Kearney - Sports News - Fanatics - the world's biggest events

Leuluai the man for faithful Kearney

By Steve Jancetic 23/10/2008 07:52:58 PM Comments (0)

Perceived as the weak link in a formidable New Zealand backline, Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney revealed halfback Thomas Leuluai was among the first players picked for Sunday's World Cup opener against Australia.

The Wigan-based playmaker was named to partner Wests Tigers pivot Benji Marshall in the halves for trans-Tasman clash, Leuluai beating out the more-fancied Nathan Fien for the job with the latter shuffled into the No.9 jumper.

But Kearney claimed there was never a selection showdown between the two, with Leuluai all but assured first crack at the halfback spot after answering an SOS to join the Kiwi side just two days out from May's Centenary Test against the Kangaroos.

With such a short preparation, Leuluai was always going to be on a hiding to nothing up against a formidable Australian side, but his commitment in making the 21-hour mercy dash was enough to convince Kearney that this was a player worth persevering with.

And now Kearney believes the 23-year-old is ready to show the locals what he's really made of with a solid fortnight in camp with the Kiwis under his belt.

"I was always going to bring Thomas back for this, I was always confident in what he could do and I recognise that him coming out here with two days to prepare for a Test against Australia was always going to be tough for him," Kearney said.

"I always wanted to give him that opportunity.

"The five-eighth that he trained with for that day and a half (Ben Roberts) dropped out after that last session and Lance (Hohaia) got put in there, it was tough on him."

Now the ball is in Leuluai's court with Kearney flush with halfback options should he not flourish against the Australians.

Not only is Fien a possible replacement at halfback - which would make room for South Sydney hooker Issac Luke to come into the squad - but there also been a push to move Marshall into first receiver with his Tigers coach Tim Sheens leading the calls.

The Kiwis aren't short on five-eighth candidates should Marshall slide over with Setaimata Sa, Jerome Ropati and Lance Hohaia all capable of shuffling into the pivot role.

As it is, Sa will come off the bench on Sunday with Ropati in the centres and Hohaia at fullback.

Kearney is confident Hohaia's playmaking ability will give the Kiwis an extra dimension from the back following the pre-tournament back injury to regular custodian Brent Webb.

Best known as a utility throughout his NRL career, Hohaia excelled when handed the No.1 jumper for a prolonged spell this season, deputising for Warriors fullback Wade McKinnon who spent much of the seasons on the sidelines either injured or suspended.

"To lose Brent Webb is a bit of a blow but to get Lance in the form that he's in is a real bonus for us," Kearney said.

"He certainly does add that extra dimension in a sense that we can play him as a ball player, we can play him at dummy half, he's really effective out of there, it's a real bonus for us."

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