Five-eighth in the thick of it
Tokoroa’s Isaac John will have a baptism by fire for his country in this weekend’s famous Anzac test in Sydney. Chris Barclay reports.
Isaac John has been cast as a modern- day Olsen Filipaina, a reserve grader challenged with stepping up to counter the world champion Kangaroos as depth in the crucial halves combination reemerges as the Kiwis’ Achilles heel in the face of a seemingly hopeless task.
John is one of six debutants named in the Kiwis’ 18- man squad for Friday’s Anzac Test in Sydney, and can expect the toughest initiation imaginable as Kieran Foran’s replacement against an Australian side that has not lost the traditional midseason international since 1999.
Filipaina famously made the step up from the Balmain Tigers second stringers to help steer the Kiwis to an unexpected victory in the third test against Australia at Carlaw Park in 1985 when marking the great Wally Lewis.
John, a former New Zealand Warrior who left Mt Smart for England’s Super League in 2012 when Shaun Johnson was earmarked as the club’s new Stacey Jones, now faces a similar scenario at Allianz Stadium when the Kiwis’ fourth choice fiveeighth goes up against North Queensland maestro Johnathan Thurston.
John made an encouraging return to the NRL last year when offered a lifeline at Penrith by former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary, though the acquisition of Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace have seen the Tokoroa-born five-eighth designated NSW Cup duties unless injuries intervene.
The 25- year- old earned his unexpected Kiwis call- up after Josh Hoffman was ruled out with an Achilles injury and, although he has only played three NRL games this season, John can at least lean on his World Cup experience with the Cook Islands last year as he combines with former age-group rival Johnson.
After Foran was ruled out with a knee injury, Thomas Leuluai and Hoffman also succumbed to leave John filling a considerable void as a new-look Kiwis line-up hope to break an eight-test losing streak against the world champions.
John is not alone in preparing for an ominous assignment.
Warriors’ back-up hooker Silvia Havili has also inherited a demanding role after Issac Luke, Leuluai and Elijah Taylor dropped out of contention as the starting No. 9
Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney acknowledged the duo would be under pressure in the 2013 World Cup final rematch.
But he said their inclusion, albeit due to injury, was justified as New Zealand Rugby League prepared to co-host with Australia the code’s next global showcase in 2017.
The squad contains only five players who endured the 34-2 cupfinal loss at Old Trafford in November.
Although injuries ruled out several automatic choices, form and development were also prime considerations when selectors Kearney, Richie Barnett and Tawera Nikau finalised their team.
Eyes on the ball: Isaac John passes the ball during a Penrith Panthers NRL training session.