Monday Morning Halfback: NZ thriving

Rugby League in New Zealand is set for a bold new era, Blake Austin continues to press his claim for 'buy of the season', Ben Hunt shows great composure in epic finish, while Brett Stewart joins the game's elite.

Bold new era for Rugby League in New Zealand

Has there ever been a better time to be a rugby league fan in New Zealand? The national side has won four major titles including a World Cup in the last decade and are currently building nicely to the next one, fresh off a historic three-match winning streak against the Kangaroos. 

With news that hooker Issac Luke is heading to the Warriors on a three-year deal in 2016, joining fellow Kiwi international Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as marquee signings, all eyes will be on the Warriors in 2016. They will boast three-quarters of New Zealand's international spine with Luke the eldest at just 27 years of age. You don’t win Premierships on paper, but you can definitely turn heads and sell memberships! 

It will be up to everyone involved in the club to make the most of what is fast becoming the NRL's hottest roster. With big signings come big expectations, it would be great for the game if the Warriors can reach their potential..

Could there be a cosmic shift in the power of rugby league? That won't be a bad thing.

Shaun Johnson shakes of criticism 

Everyone knows the talent that enigmatic halfback Shaun Johnson possesses; and the man himself knows it is a gilt-edged sword. Johnson is a marquee player with the ability to produce the extraordinary and is highly scrutinised and criticised when he fails to deliver, much in the same way Benji Marshall has been held to a higher standard to most other players throughout the duration of his career. It comes with the territory. 

At his best, Johnson is quite simply a freak - a marketer's dream with a glittering highlight reel that most players couldn't even dream of. He showed it in the Anzac Test and he backed it up with some incredible plays to win his side the game against Cronulla. 

The Warriors No. 7 believes that while he might not have been at his best to start the season, the criticism has been a little unwarranted this year, but he has never let it dent his focus or belief.

"It's really funny actually because I was getting bagged like you wouldn't believe going into the Test last week and I said leading into that game that 'it wasn't as bad as what everyone was making it out to be'," Johnson said. 

"I had the confidence of 'Cappy' [Coach Andrew McFadden], he was telling me that he was happy with how I played the month leading into the Test. In saying that I wasn't satisfied, I wasn't feeling like I was at the top of my game but I felt like I was certainly building and again I feel I've done that in different ways over the past couple of weeks. 

"I guarantee if the public were to pick the Test team last week, I wouldn't have been in there and that's just the way it is. 

"I understand I'm never going to be able to please everyone and for me it's about knowing and trusting what I'm doing is improving each week."

 

Stone Cold Blake Austin

How good is Blake Austin going? His club bio in the official NRL media guide reads that he 'arrives in Canberra looking for a chance to cement a place in the halves'; he's done that and more. Arguably the form player of the competition, Austin is growing in confidence and stature every week. 

He scored a hat-trick for City in his representative debut last week and followed it up with another two tries off the back of solo runs that tormented the Titans on Saturday. 

Austin showed he is equally adept at stepping off both feet. His first came from a monster left foot step, his second, an equally dramatic right foot step to crash through several would-be tackles. 

But it was his effort in defence to save a try that demonstrated his head is switched on. With the Raiders leading by 22 points and under 20 minute remaining on the clock, the game was seemingly in the bag when Titans hooker Kierran Moseley made a break out of dummy-half down the centre of the field, Austin tracked the break for 40 metres before coming up with a textbook cover tackle on flyer Josh Hoffman just 10 metres from the line to save a certain try. It was a remarkable play that showed Austin's attitude and sheer competiveness.

He wouldn't look out of place in a Blues jumper.

Ben Hunt comes up with the goods

He had a breakout year in 2014 and already Ben Hunt has produced some match winning plays in 2015. He scored a memorable try in golden point to defeat the Roosters a few weeks ago and he followed it up on Friday night with an all-or-nothing play against a brave Panthers side. 

The Broncos' No. 7 ran the ball on the last and found Corey Oates for the winning try in the final minute. It could have all been so different. With five minutes to go, Hunt had seemingly blown his chance with a wayward field goal directly in front of the posts and only 18 metres out with his side trailing by a point. It was the kind of miss that could haunt a young playmaker. But Hunt showed incredible composure by putting that miss behind him to come up with the game-defining play. It'll do wonders for his confidence.

Prince of Brookvale

Brett Stewart became just the 10th player in the history of the game to score 150 tries in first-grade when he crossed against the Knights at his beloved Brookvale Oval. It is an amazing achievement. The longstanding heartbeat of the golden era on the northern beaches club, Stewart will go down as one of the club's best ever. Injuries cruelled his duel with Billy Slater for the Kangaroos fullback role when the spot was up for grabs, but there is no doubting he is alongside Slater as one of the greats in the modern era. Stewart missed the best part of two seasons in 2009-10, playing just six games across those two years, leaving us to wonder how many he might have scored had injury not hit hard. 

But if you play as long and as tough as he has, injuries are bound to occur. It has been an amazing career and there are still a few years left for the Prince of Brookvale to add to his ever-growing tally.

Quote of the Week: "This is 15 out of 10 on the incredible metre."

Fox Sports commentator and NRL.com columnist Andrew Voss describing Shaun Johnson's simultaneously brilliant and dramatic match winning try against the Sharks at Remondis Stadium on Saturday night.

We now have a new scale in rugby league, it would seemingly be some play to get the scale to go to 16, but we'll wait to hear official confirmation from Voss to see how many numbers are on the scale.