Sheens is treating the Prime Ministers XIII match this weekend as a genuine trial to pick his Kangaroos side which has been affected by the withdrawal of many of its stars.
Enter Johnston, a 19-year-old winger who has set 2014 alight, scoring 21 tries from 18 matches for South Sydney and capping off his rookie year with a grand final win. Johnston, who qualifies to play for Papua New Guinea through his mother, was initially on the Kumul selectors radar earlier in the year but his meteoric rise to the top of the NRL over the season, from Holden Cup (U20s) to ousting Rabbitohs legend Nathan Merritt from the No.2 jersey in the first grade side, has ensured he is now in contention for a wing berth in Laurie Daley’s PM’s XIII team.
The match at Kalabond Oval will provide an unlikely launch pad for Australia’s next wave of test footballers.
An expanding injury list leaves Sheens with little choice but to name an inexperienced squad on Monday for the tournament.
That announcement will come a day after the Kokopo clash, where the PNG’s Kumuls host an Australian Prime Minister’s XIII featuring several players Sheens wants to assess for their readiness to face New Zealand in the Four Nations opener two weeks later.
“There’s a still a number of places up for grabs, based on this game,” Sheens told AAP in Wellington on Tuesday.
“Those who have dropped out may struggle to make the side again. That’s the way it happens.”
Sheens will travel to Kokopo to gain greater insight into some players and watch coach Laurie Daley’s PM’s XIII in action.
South Sydney youngsters Dylan Walker and Alex Johnston could find themselves in a PMs XIII jersey with a host of outside backs including Brett Morris, Billy Slater, Darius Boyd, Brent Tate not available through injury, retirement and other conditions.
“I want to get know a lot of these guys off the field so this whole week is part of a building process,” Sheens said.
The latest Kangaroos casualty is Cowboys prop Matt Scott who, Sheens said, was upset to confirm over the phone on Monday that he needed shoulder surgery.
It means Sheens’ five leading props — Scott, James Tamou, Andrew Fifita, Nate Myles and Paul Gallen — will all miss the tournament.
Versatile Josh Papalii has been handed a starting prop berth on Sunday alongside the established Aaron Woods while interchange props Brenton Lawrence and Josh McGuire have plenty to play for.
Sheens is also considering the front row merits of Dylan Napa, Jacob Lillyman and Bulldogs pair Aiden Tolman and Dave Klemmer, while Sam Thaiday could yet shift from the second row.
Sheens is wary of the challenge his pack faces in the Four Nations.
The Kiwis squad named on Tuesday is typically rugged, he said, while England boast arguably the toughest pack in the world, even without rugby union-bound Sam Burgess.
“We’re vulnerable in a couple of spots and we’re going to have to get it together very quick because we don’t have a lot of time,” Sheens said.
“It’s a long way between now and a final given some of the issues we’ve got.”
Seven of last year’s starting 13 from the World Cup final are not available, while Sheens cannot pick nine of the 17 players involved in the 30-18 defeat of New Zealand in Sydney in May.
Sheens said one silver lining was that a tournament was the ideal time to introduce new faces.