Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Flair's fair but structure key

Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney. Photo / Alex Broadway
Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney. Photo / Alex Broadway

Kiwis coach Steve Kearney believes he has the answer to a question that has dogged his team through the ages.

Finding the right balance between structure and flair is always a conundrum for the Kiwis in their battles against the Kangaroos.

Like looking for an introverted politician or a cheap Rolex, the ideal approach sounds like an oxymoron; rarely can you beat Australia without taking risks but you also can't afford to make mistakes.

In the 1980s, the Kiwis were famous for their flair and willingness to try the unexpected, with players such as Kurt Sorensen, Clayton Friend and Olsen Filipaina surprising the Australians with their unpredictable approach.

Henry and Robbie Paul, along with Stacey Jones, brought magic touches in the late 1990s and early 2000s but the game has become a lot more regimented over the last decade.

Coach Gary Freeman emphasised discipline in 2001-02, with offloads and off-the-cuff play discouraged, but it didn't really suit and wasn't successful.

Brian McClennan often struck the perfect balance in 2005 and 2006. He liked to innovate and used men such as David Solomona and Clinton Toopi to unsettle the Australians, but also insisted on a territorial game, where winning the field position battle was imperative.

"There needs to be some form of structure in every team but it should only be a guide," says Frank Endacott, who guided the Kiwis to some memorable victories over the Kangaroos in late 1990s. "Players are picked because of their natural flair and ability and they need to be allowed to play what is in front of them. Just looking for five drives forward then a kick suits the Australians more than our team."

Kearney has always been seen as a coach who likes structure over style, function over flair, after learning his trade at the Storm, the arch-disciples of the arm wrestle.

"It's not about playing Australia with an Australian style game," says Kearney. "I know our strengths but the key is holding on to the football. You can talk about structure [but] there is one thing that I do know that you won't beat Australia with and that is a poor completion rate and a poor penalty count."

Kearney points to this year's Anzac test, where the Kiwis held Australia to 6-6 before falling away, as an example of dominance through discipline.

"It's not always about the structure or the plays," says Kearney. "In the first half of that match, we won the penalty count [6-3] and our completion rate was 79 per cent. In the second half, it was low (33 per cent) and the penalty count was 0-4 at one stage."

The coach says he doesn't discourage his players from playing "their natural game" but within parameters. They haven't beaten Australia since 2010 but many recent clashes have been close.

"I want to play to what our strengths are," explains Kearney. "We have a good organiser in Kieran Foran; forwards who can pass, and have aggressive carries in them; and a dummy half [Issac Luke] who is dangerous when we get quick play the balls.

"That is what I base our game plan around but underneath it all, we need to win the penalty count and have a high completion rate. If we do that and execute well [on the fifth tackle], which we have had problems with in the past, we will give ourselves a great chance. That is not playing an Australian style, that is a style that is going to win footy games."

To defend their crown, the Kiwis will also have to find a way to blunt the dynamic quartet of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Jonathan Thurston - something that the star-studded NSW team have rarely managed in the last eight years

"We did a good job of nullifying [them] in the last [Anzac test] but then along came Luke Lewis who came up with two plays which really cracked it open," says Kearney.

"If we put all our energy into stopping [the big four] we could take our eyes off someone else."

Kearney is fully focused on first-up opponents Samoa but is confident his team will be ready for the Kangaroos, should the opportunity arise.

"If we get our principles right and an even share of possession, I hope they will be worrying about a Roger Tuivasa-Sheck or Kieran Foran or Shaun Johnson or whoever it might be," says Kearney.

"Our pack is a trump card and hopefully our backs will be able to take advantage of the opportunities created by them."

The Kiwis have won just four of their last 27 meetings with Australia across the last decade (two draws) but tend to peak for the big occasions, having taken the 2005 Tri-Nations as well as the 2008 World Cup and the 2010 Four Nations.

"It's difficult and a huge challenge but it is not impossible," says Kearney.

- Herald on Sunday

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