David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

NRL: Halfback duel key to Warriors hopes against Cowboys

The Warriors are wary of Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston's short kicking game and are intent on improving their defence after being badly exposed in last week's heavy NRL defeat to South Sydney.

Coach Andrew McFadden took responsibility for his side being underprepared for Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds' tactical kicking in behind the line and expects Cowboys playmaker Thurston will be looking to repeat the tactic in Saturday's crucial clash at 1300Smiles Stadium.

"They (Rabbitohs) got us with some tactics that we need to be better prepared for so we need to take some responsibility there as coaches," said McFadden.

"I'd expect that they'd (Cowboys) be looking at that so certainly we need to prepare a little better.

"And they're small adjustments for us. We should be able to get that right for this week."

McFadden is banking on David Fustitu'a doing a better job at fullback after Tui Lolohea endured some horror moments defending kicks close to the line against the Rabbitohs.

Wings Manu Vatuvei and Ken Maumalo have also been caught out rushing up in defence and are vulnerable when turning to defend attacking kicks.

While some adjustments are needed to the Warriors defensive structures, McFadden said his players also need to show greater awareness.

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"A bit of both," he said. "There's certainly some effort that needed to be better on the weekend but also some understanding and awareness which is a learning curve for some of our young players."

But while the Warriors are aware of the threat posed by Thurston's short kicking game, their own game is benefitting from halfback Shaun Johnson's peerless ability to force repeat sets.

Johnson has been in commanding form in recent weeks and his organisational play and ability to find the ingoal on last tackle plays has enabled the Warriors to build immense attacking pressure on opposition sides.

The 26-year-old hasn't always been known for playing the percentages but in recent weeks has surged into the lead with 19 forced dropouts the most of any player in the competition so far this season.

Johnson said his ability to steer the side around the park had improved as the Warriors honed and improved other aspects of their attack.

With potent runners lurking out wide and on the edges, opposition defences are unable to hang back and wait for a last tackle kick knowing the Kiwis test No7 has plenty of options up his sleeve.

"We've had a lot of movement from the outside backs, back-rowers, and we're a genuine option to run the ball on the last, which obviously brings the defence up and maybe spaces the defence out a little bit as well," said Johnson.

"Having that deception around me allows me to put the kicks in easier."

McFadden was buoyed by the gains the Warriors have made in these areas and said there was an improved understanding from all players about how they can help Johnson capitalise on attacking chances.

"Our kicking game has been really good and Shaun has been a big part of that," he said.
"It does allow us to put lots of pressure on the opposition and those opportunities come off the back of some real coordination on last plays.

"It is a focus and every team wants to apply pressure and we're doing ok at that at the moment."

- NZ Herald

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