Bodyguard, guardian angel, babysitter - call it what you will - Simon Mannering's primary job during tomorrow night's Anzac test at Eden Park will be to look after young Kiwis tyro Shaun Johnson.
Kiwis assistant coach Tony Iro didn't skirt around the fact Mannering's presence at left centre was designed to protect the rookie halfback while also adding some starch to the Kiwis' edge defence in the face of what will be a testing time from Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges.
"[Mannering] is in good form and we know the job he is going to do for us," said Iro, a member of the only Kiwis side to taste Anzac test success, 14 years ago at North Harbour Stadium. "We've got a fullback [Josh Hoffman] on debut and a young half as well and Simon adds that bit of steel out on the edge. Against Hodges and Inglis you need a bit of steel out there."
Iro could have added that winger Manu Vatuvei might also benefit from Mannering's calming presence in what will be an all-Warriors left edge trio. Both Johnson and Vatuvei have had their defensive problems this season.
While the fearsome Steve Matai was initially slated for the role, Mannering became the obvious safe pair of hands when the Manly centre was ruled out with a shoulder injury.
"I guess we know each other's games pretty well so it will be nice to have those guys inside and out," Mannering said.
"I'm excited for Shaun to get a crack in the Kiwi jersey. Us players around him will be doing our best to make sure he has an enjoyable night. He is very confident in his own ability. That is a real key for a young guy coming through."
Superstar Kangaroos fullback Billy Slater tipped his cap to Mannering's defensive prowess, suggesting his selection at centre indicated the Kiwis were keen to adopt a grinding approach.
"We are expecting to see a really good defensive side," Slater said.
"They have picked Simon Mannering in the centres, which goes to show they will try to stick it to us and get us in that arm wrestle. We are happy to do that as well. That's what rugby league is about. Those first 10-15 minutes, you have to win that battle in the middle and get the ball as quick as you can at the back and try to get down the other end. I think both game plans will be quite simple - whoever can get on top in that area will get the opportunity to throw the ball around."
With the brilliant attacking talent of Johnson linking with Benji Marshall for the first time, the Kiwis will be dead keen to make sure they are the team throwing the ball around. After a rough end-of-season campaign last year, when they beat Wales and were beaten up by Australia (twice) and England, making their opponents do the scrambling would be a welcome reversal.
Mannering's presence in the backline is a safety net but is certainly nothing new. Having played there in the team's last match against England he is, in fact, the incumbent centre. That side also featured fellow Warriors backrower Lewis Brown at centre, indicating just how stretched resources were on that tour.
Just eight of the 17 players from that side remain, with Brown one of those to make way for specialist centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall. The Ngaruawahia-raised Roosters centre has hit top form, scoring four tries in his last three matches after initially struggling on his return from a lacerated kidney suffered in a freak pre-season training accident.
"I thought I was winded so I carried on training and it wasn't until later on that night that I realised something was going on and went to hospital," he said of the injury.
"I started getting dizzy and I couldn't breathe. I knew something was up when I started urinating blood. That's never a good sign. So I drove myself to hospital and that was it. I didn't leave for a fair while."By Steve Deane Email Steve