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Johns exerts the pressure on
The huge shadow cast by star halfback Andrew Johns again threatens to engulf incumbent NSW No.7 Brett Kimmorley after his nightmare State of Origin rugby league return.
Johns - finally fully fit after a horror injury run - was all but anointed as the new Blues halfback for June 15's Origin II in Sydney by influential ex-NSW coach Phil Gould on Nine Network's coverage after Kimmorley threw an intercept pass that sealed Queensland's 24-20 golden point win last night.
It capped a disappointing night for Kimmorley who was keen to finally cement the Blues' No.7 jersey in his first game for NSW since 2001.
The limelight was squarely on Kimmorley following his honest admission that he should be sacked if he had a disappointing Origin after being picked as NSW No.7 for the first time on form.
The last time Kimmorley had played Origin was in Brisbane in 2001 when Johns was injured - and he was completely outclassed by a 34-year-old Allan Langer as Queensland roared to a series win.
Four years later, Kimmorley was again feeling the heat at The Cauldron after he unwittingly set up the matchwinner for Queensland reserve Matt Bowen in golden point.
Asked on Nine if he would be ready for game two if picked for NSW, Johns - back from a knee reconstruction and a broken jaw - said: "Yeah, I'm ready for it".
And in an ominous sign, NSW coach Ricky Stuart said: "I always say to my halfbacks they own the result and ... he (Kimmorley) owned the wrong result."
While Kimmorley today said there was "always pressure" from Johns, he put on a brave front when he arrived with the Blues team in Sydney this morning, admitting he'd throw the pass again if it meant a NSW win.
"Yeah, definitely. We've got tremendous outside backs and in a game that was so tight through the middle of the ruck, I just thought move the ruck a little bit and we were a chance," he said.
"That's the winger (Bowen) that caught the ball so we obviously had two guys still outside him.
"You see things and you back yourself, just probably the execution wasn't there."
Not that Kimmorley was not without pangs of regret.
"I was very disappointed last night and obviously still very disappointed today," he said.
"The hardest part I think about how I feel is that we played so good the last 40 minutes.
"The guys made a tremendous effort to come from 19-0 down and my bad pass I suppose took all their hard work away from them."
NSW teammate Steve Simpson today backed Kimmorley's decision to attempt to exploit an overlap with what became the crucial intercept.
"He threw that pass but if it lands in one of our bloke's arms it's a try at the other end so it was just one of those things - that's just the way it goes in footy," he said.
But Simpson - Johns' teammate at NRL club Newcastle - also gave a worrying assessment for Kimmorley.
He said the "Joey of old" would be on display when he finally returns for the Knights' next game, a perfectly timed pre-Origin hit-out against a virtual Queensland team, Brisbane.
It will be Johns' first and last chance to press his NSW claims before the Blues team is announced for Origin II.
"He seems to be (back to his best). He's overcome the jaw and I think his leg is getting really strong," Simpson said.
"You can see evidence in the last game he played, he started to get back to his old self again, hitting the line hard and tackling really well - I think he's got his confidence back."
Johns said of his Origin selection chances today when asked by Sydney radio station 2UE: "I don't know. I'll play in two weeks and that is against the Broncos at home.
"Whether I play well enough ... it is going to be a big ask to come back from a broken jaw and hopefully if I play well enough - maybe.
But Johns added: "I want to stick up for Brett Kimmorley here because if I was out on the field last night I couldn't have done any better than what Brett done.
"He had no ball, the team was going backwards and it is hard for a halfback to really dominate when his team hasn't got the ball, so I really feel for him in that sense."
Of his fitness, Johns said: "I'm in really good shape. I'm doing a program up here at (Brisbane's) the Queensland Institute (of Sport) which is for my knee to try and get some power back in my leg.
"And I'm in about eight weeks into it so I'm really fit at the moment so I'm looking forward to playing my first game since breaking my jaw in about two weeks."
At least Kimmorley could see the "funny" side of his gaffe.
"It's funny, I read in a magazine this morning, I think that was
Matty Bowen's first intercept, so it's good for him," he said.
"I watched the ball hit him (Bowen) on the chest, it couldn't have been any straighter.
"It was one of those things. It was a 50-50 thing that went their way and for us unfortunately on the night, we're 1-0 down now."
Gould - Origin's most successful coach and Stuart's mentor at NRL club Sydney Roosters - made constant comparisons with Kimmorley and Johns throughout Nine's coverage, saving glowing endorsements for the latter.
But Kimmorley said: "I'm not looking to what happens in game two. If I play two good games now for the club (Cronulla) then hopefully I'll be in game two.
"The best way to get over being disappointed is to train with the club tomorrow and play good on Saturday (against Parramatta)."
The player affectionately known as "Noddy" was inconsolable in the dressing sheds last night, sitting with his head bowed as a team official hovered to keep any prying media at bay.
Kimmorley said his teammates had eased the burden.
"It's good being in a team environment. The players have been tremendous," he said.
"The messages I've got overnight, the phone calls this morning have all been really good.
"I think it's the best part about playing team sport. If you're an individual playing you shoot yourself.
"My teammates have been tremendous which, in such a big stage like this, is great to have."
Asked about Kimmorley's intercept pass, Stuart said: "It's a very fine line, but that's what you've got to live with."
But when quizzed on his Origin II team, Stuart said: "I don't want any changes."
NSW skipper Danny Buderus said of Kimmorley: "He was put under a lot of pressure through their kicks, but I thought Noddy did well.
"I think every player is under pressure, especially in the halfback position.
"Of course I want all the boys back for the second one."