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Benji muffled by coach on Test eve

By Wayne Heming 07/05/2009 05:41:47 PM Comments (0)

Australia are anticipating him to weave his magic from five-eighth but New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney said his rookie Test captain Benji Marshall had demanded to play halfback in Friday night's Test.

Kearney explained on Thursday his decision to swap around triumphant World Cup halves was neither a tactical ploy or motivated by the form of either Marshall or Nathan Fien, shifted to five-eighth.

Kearney hung the "do not disturb" sign on his scheming skipper on Thursday, denying the media an opportunity to get his final thoughts on the clash.

It sparked speculation Kearney was concerned his inexperienced skipper could provide Australia with added ammunition following his comments earlier in the week claiming the Kiwis would remain number one in the world - win, lose or draw - courtesy of last November's World Cup boilover.

A cautious Kearney refused to explain why he pulled the plug on Marshall but his NRL club coach and Australian mentor Tim Sheens was far from surprised he was muffled on Test eve.

"He's a young captain, and it can be a distraction for a young captain," said Sheens, expecting to see a lot of Marshall playing five-eighth.

"He doesn't do a lot of it, he's either avoiding it or when he does do it there's always something controversial about a contract or an injury.

"As a captain he hasn't had to do a lot of that thing, speaking up for himself and his team so I think that's probably smart to take a little bit of pressure off him that way."

The usually laid-back Kearney, who suffered another setback on Thursday with forward Jeremy Smith ruled out after failing a fitness test on his injured ankle, became agitated when bombarded by questions about suspended hooker Issac Luke.

The Kiwis, who had already lost line-breaking forward Frank Pritchard before Luke's suspension and Smith's withdrawal, have added Tigers utility Dean Halatau to play dummy half with Melbourne's Sika Manu coming onto a reshuffled bench.

"It's disappointing for us but we've put it behind us and look forward to the Test match," he said.

"We've got a guy who's going to do a job for us who the team and I are very comfortable with and who I know is going to try his very best for New Zealand tomorrow night.

"I've spoken enough about Issac Luke, if you want to talk about Dean Halatau, no problem."

Kearney, who played 47 times for New Zealand, said Kangaroo captain Darren Lockyer, who will equal Mal Meninga's mark of 46 Tests tomorrow night, had his admiration.

Lockyer's 25th Test as captain will take him beyond Meninga and Wally Lewis and put him two behind the mighty Clive Churchill's record of 27 Tests as Australian captain.

"He's as much as danger now as he's ever been," Kearney said of Lockyer.

Kearney, who boasts an impressive coaching record of six wins from eight Tests including the World Cup final, jumped on suggestions Sheens' inside knowledge of Marshall and Halatau could be crucial.

"I know Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis fairly well too," he countered.

"That's the nature of the game, I don't think it's an issue.

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