SYDNEY Roosters started this season with banners festooned around Allianz Stadium bearing the rather ostentatious slogan “we play for premierships”.
On the surface of it, this is a pretty straightforward pronouncement. Who, in the NRL, does not? But it carries a certain arrogance with it – the implication that others might think they do but are deluding themselves.
If the New Zealand Kiwis were to need a marketing catch phrase for their seven weeks or so in Europe this year, it could be “we play for World Cups”.
Since lifting the trophy in 2008 with a 34-20 win over Australia in the Suncorp Stadium final, the form of Stephen Kearney’s side has been patchy.
But while it could be argued Australia and England have been concerned with each match as it has arisen, c oach Kearney tells Forty20 his team selections have always been made with the 2013 Coup du Monde in mind.
“The Anzac Tests (against Australia) have always been a challenge for us,” says Kearney, who has Penrith’s Ivan Cleary as an assistant this campaign.
“But the one thing we have focused on is the consistency of the group. If you keep changing the team around all the time, it creates problems.
“So there’s been a method in what we’ve done; to keep things consistent and bring players into the team environment with a plan in mind.”
Since the last World Cup, the Kiwis have lost to Australia 38-10, 12-10, 20-10, 30-12 and 32-12 in mid-season internationals.
“I’d argue we’ve got closer to Australia each time,” says Kearney, whose RLWC squad was unfortunately announced as we went to press (hence no mention of a certain SBW here). “Yes, the score blew out a bit in Canberra this year but I could see progress.”
To say the Kiwis sacrifice results in other matches in order to be perfectly tuned for a World Cup or Four Nations final is probably unfair. But recent results indicate they hold a few cards back; some disappointing results were punctuated by a 16-12 win over their trans-Tasman rivals in the 2010 Four Nations decider.
On the other hand, “the way we went out of the 2009 and 2011 Four Nations tournaments were, to be completely honest, disappointing,” says the coach. “They were frankly disappointing campaigns.
In ’09, a spine-tingling 20-20 draw with Australia at The Stoop was followed up by a 62-12 win in France but then the tourists crashed 20-12 to England in Huddersfield.
Two seasons later, the Australians triumphed 26-12 at Warrington, the Kiwis bounced back 36-0 at Wembley over the Welsh and then the England outclassed Kearney’s men 28-6 at Hull, in a game where Issac Luke – by his own admission – tried to break cousin Rangi Chase’s leg.
You should be spotting a common theme here.
If international series are played in Australia, New Zealand are a huge chance of winning. It’s getting to the point where such results may not even be termed ‘upsets’. If they are staged in the northern hemisphere, the men in black might as well stay home.
The last fully-fledged Kiwis tour to England and France, under Gary Kemble in 2007, was an even bigger disaster than the two sojourns just discussed. All three Tests against Great Britain were lost and France beaten by just eight points in Paris.
“In 2011, we certainly had a number of players not available due to injury,” said Kearney, assistant to Anthony Griffin at Brisbane Broncos.
“We’re in a much better position now, in terms of the players we are able to take with us.”
But Kearney does not shy away from the fact the Kiwis have a problem on tour in the UK. In the past, some players have put this down to Polynesians being more family oriented and struggling with the distances and time away.
But many Polynesians have excelled in Super League.
“We’ve done a fair bit of review on the whole thing, considering our results have not been what we wanted the last two times over there,” Kearney insists.
“There are a whole range of factors you have to take into account. I think we’re a lot further ahead in terms of the leadership group. We’ve got men like Jeremy Smith, Simon Mannering, Frank Pritchard.
“Again, we’re in a better position.”
Keeping the players’ minds on the job is a key objective of the Kiwi staff this year. To that end the side is moving base from Liverpool, to Avignon and then to Leeds.
Kearney said there was a danger of players becoming bored. “I think there’s definitely a danger of that creeping in.
“You’re away for six or seven weeks and you’re in the north of England which is not the most pleasant place in the world at that time of year,” he explained.
“So you have to re-enforce why you’re there and what you want to get out of it. We’re going to some different places and trying to embrace the experience.”
Of course, Benji Marshall was relieved of the captaincy duties months before his decision to defect to rugby union with the Auckland Blues. It must have been a big call for Kearney, considering what a big star he is, and the comments above are a strong indication of the coach hoped to gain from the decision – and what he hoped to avoid.
“If you had said to me even 18 months ago that we were going to have to go to the World Cup without Benji Marshall in the squad, you would have heard some uncertainty in my voice,” he said.
“But the fact we have players of the calibre of Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai to choose from in those positions is an indication of how far we’ve come.
“In the past we may have lacked depth in some positions that
Despite some publicity over selection battles with the island countries over some players – and North Queensland’s Jason Taumalolo choosing Tonga – Kearney insists he got every player he wanted.
And while he can’t say for sure that Australia are hellbent on avoiding a semi-final appointment with the Kiwis by winning first-up, he believes that is certainly the case for their opponents in Cardiff, England.
“If you look at England’s detailed preparation, you get a feeling about their approach to their first game,” he said.
“They’re going to South Africa, they’re putting a lot into being ready right from the start. So while I don’t know how the Australians feel about that issue, I think you can say it’s a focus for the English.”
The Kiwis face the Cook Islands in a warm-up again and Somoa in Warrington on day two of the tournament.
But it’s not even worth asking if the Kiwis would put all their eggs in the Halliwell Jones basket. We already know the answer.
They don’t play for eggs. They play for Cups.
Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE