Littlejohn key as Manly halves crisis escalates
Jack Littlejohn has played NSW Cup for three different NRL clubs and reserve grade rugby over the past three years, but in the space of a fortnight he has gone from belated debutant to potentially senior playmaker as Manly's halves situation approaches crisis point.
New Zealand Test five-eighth Kieran Foran is out for around one month with a knee injury, regular back-up half Jamie Lyon is also sidelined for a few weeks with a knee strain and now halfback Daly Cherry-Evans is battling to be fit for the side's Round 9 trip to Melbourne with a calf strain.
It means Littlejohn, who made his debut last round against Canberra alongside Cherry-Evans in the halves as the side racked up a big 54-18 win, could go into one of the toughest road trips in the NRL as a senior playmaker with one game under his belt.
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Cherry-Evans has been named at halfback and could be given right up until game day to prove his fitness but if he doesn't play it is likely utility forward Jamie Buhrer or utility back Peta Hiku could start as a running five-eighth, with Littlejohn to take the bulk of the playmaking duties assisted by fullback Brett Stewart (whose 11 try assists in 2014 are equal best alongside Cooper Cronk, despite having played just five of eight games due to injury).
However the former Roosters, Bulldogs and Randwick reserve-grader was taking things in his stride with the full backing of his teammates.
"It will be a big challenge for me in the halves if I get the call-up again," he said, not getting ahead of himself on Tuesday before the teams were named.
"I'm definitely happy with my performance [against Canberra], I was pretty nervous before the game. It was just good to get the first one out of the way and hopefully I can build on that."
He said it was hard to hang in and keep pushing for an opportunity during his time in the lower grades but stuck in as his family encouraged him to keep seeking an opportunity.
"I've got to pinch myself every now and then to think that now I've played an NRL game, which has been my dream since I was a little fella," he said.
"It will definitely be a big pressure game for me [against the Storm]. I'll just keep it simple, do the simple things right – my kicking game, get my defence right and hopefully the attack comes off the back of that."
He added the tutelage of Newcastle legend Andrew Johns over the pre-season helped him with his positional play.
Back-rower Justin Horo said he was impressed with Littlejohn's toughness.
"Playing with Kieran [Foran], that's obviously the biggest trait that I love about playing with Kieran and Jack's just the same. When we played the Raiders it was about getting our defence right and when we did that you could see what he could do with the ball," Horo said.
"He's a really tough player and everything else flows from that. Once you get your defence right it makes the job a lot easier."
Rugged centre Steve Matai also praised the playmaker's toughness.
"He's similar to Kieran, he runs the ball hard and tackles hard, he's a good ball player and that's what we need," Matai said.
"He's got a good kicking game. I thought he really stood up against Canberra and I'm sure he'll do a good job on the weekend."
Jamie Buhrer, who has been named at lock in the absence of Glenn Stewart (who is out for around six weeks after undergoing minor ankle surgery) was preparing for an unfamiliar shift in the halves if Cherry-Evans fails to prove his fitness in time.
"[I would probably be] about as comfortable as a back-rower in the halves would be but obviously my role wouldn't be to be Daly Cherry-Evans," he said.
"If I was thrust into the halves it would be to play simple footy. We'd have Jack Littlejohn there to the majority of the kicking. It would be more about shoring up one side defensively, running when I have to, kicking when I have to."
Looking back on his only previous start at five-eighth, in Darren Lockyer's final NRL game in Brisbane, he said: "I think I topped the hit-up count so that's how I'd be playing it ... It's not something that I practise regularly."