League: Loss of Leuluai gives combo their chance

By Michael Brown

With his flashy play and deft passing, Shaun Johnson (left) makes a good partner for Kieran Foran. Photo / Getty Images
With his flashy play and deft passing, Shaun Johnson (left) makes a good partner for Kieran Foran. Photo / Getty Images

The withdrawal of Thomas Leuluai from the side to face France tomorrow morning (NZT) is a blow for the Kiwis but it gives Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran another chance to develop their relationship in the halves.

Johnson and Foran are likely to be the first-choice combination as the World Cup heads into the knockout stages but Leuluai still has a crucial role to play off the bench as backup at hooker and in the halves.

He lasted only 30 minutes of training yesterday before succumbing to his groin injury and was scratched from the side to play France in Avignon. It's hoped the injury will settle down sufficiently for him to play in the Kiwis' final pool game against Papua New Guinea the following weekend.

Foran has had a heavy diet of football this season, helping Manly through to the NRL grand final, but welcomed the call-up.

"I don't feel like I need a break," he said. "I'm feeling fresh, considering. I feel like I can put in a good effort each week so I'm happy to be playing."

It means he will play his fourth match with Johnson. The pair first combined in this year's Anzac test and, with both in their early-20s, it's likely to be a partnership with a long future.

Foran is supposed to provide the strong, steady influence. He takes the ball to the line, is a good organiser and excellent defender. Johnson, on the other hand, is the flashy one with the deft pass, pronounced step and terrific pace.

It's a good combination of skills.

They showed signs of their development against Samoa when they popped up together on the right edge alongside Sonny Bill Williams and Dean Whare, which provided the side with plenty of options and a number of threats. It might have something to do with the influence of assistant coach Ivan Cleary because it is a common tactic used at Penrith.

Johnson is learning how to control games, something he did to reasonable effect at times this season with the Warriors, and it often means controlling his natural urges.

"For me at the moment it's about laying a solid platform for the boys so we can move forward in this competition," Johnson told reporters. "There will be room for the flashy stuff and footwork. I hope it comes out but, at the moment, I'm just trying to do the basics really well."

He should get a chance to express himself a bit more against France. The home side, ranked fourth in the world, have shown little form in recent weeks after being beaten 22-18 by the United States in a World Cup warmup and then relying on Papua New Guinea goalkicker David Mead missing a late penalty from in front of the posts to win 9-8 in their opening game of the tournament.

The French were once considered the best team in the world and hosted the first World Cup in 1954. They have won 14 of the 53 games played against the Kiwis but the last came in 1980 when they won 6-5 in Perpignan. They drew 16-16 in Palmerston North in 1995.

Tomorrow morning's match sees a short turnaround for both teams after playing in Britain on Monday morning (NZT). The Kiwis endured a difficult travel schedule, flying from Liverpool on a budget airline to Nice before a three-hour bus journey to Avignon, but they were better off than the French, who were stuck in London because of weather delays.

Coach Stephen Kearney has made six changes - he originally made seven with Leuluai - to give everyone a chance to push for a starting spot. One is fullback Kevin Locke, who gets an opportunity in place of Josh Hoffman.

"My performance this year was a bit up and down so I'm very grateful to get the opportunity," he told the official World Cup website.

"When I got the phone call from Stephen Kearney, he said it's about how badly I want it, how hard I'm prepared to train and how much I'll fight for it. I play my best when I'm fit and focused so I'm heading into this as best I can."

- APNZ

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