League: Kearney believes he's ready for Kiwis

By Steve Deane

Like most teenagers, Stephen Kearney covered the bedroom wall at his Fleetwood Grove home in Waikanae with posters.

The young Kearney, though, had little time for the bands or babes that were the object of many of his contemporaries' affections. His walls were adorned with league players.

Kiwis legends such as Mark Graham and Hugh McGahan, who plied their trade in the rugged Australian competition, had particular pride of place.

Since he was 13, Kearney had his heart set on playing professionally.

"I guess you could call it a dream at that stage, to play in the Winfield Cup," he says. "It was what I wanted to do and I was determined to do whatever I could to try and achieve it."

Kearney's determination is legendary. Most people who've rubbed shoulders with the new Kiwis coach during a 22-year journey that started as a junior at the Kapiti Bears have been touched by it.

"As a player he was a true professional," says Ruben Wiki, one of two players to have worn the Kiwis jersey more times than Kearney.

"He never left any stone unturned. He has a lot of respect from a lot of people.

He's got that aura about him, that mana, he's the sort of bloke people will do anything for."

Even former coach Frank Endacott, quoted in a Sunday newspaper story as saying that Kearney was too green for the Kiwis job, prefaced his comments with a glowing testimony of his attributes.

"I have always said even when he was a player that he was destined to be a Kiwis coach," Endacott said.

"He was one of the truest professionals I ever coached and I believe he is one of the best up-and-coming coaches. He has all the attributes to be a top coach and a national coach for New Zealand.

"In saying that, the worst thing to do with Stephen Kearney right now is to throw him in the deep end and make him head coach. He would be on a hiding to nothing."

Kearney disagrees.

Despite admitting that he is still "learning his craft" as an assistant to Craig Bellamy at Melbourne Storm, the 35-year-old believes he is ready.

And he isn't worried the job could be a poisoned chalice for a young coach who has yet to dispense with the training wheels.

"My name might be the one up in lights but I am not doing this entirely by myself. I'll be using the experience of someone who has won six premierships [Wayne Bennett], one of the greatest coaches of the modern era, and we are going to have some other great people on the staff too.

"I am pretty confident we can provide the environment for the players to play well and that is all I am there to do."

Bennett, who is to act as a mentor and technical adviser to Kearney, played a crucial role in convincing him to take the job.

"When I was approached about [the job] that was one thing I needed to be clear about, who was responsible for what. Wayne was fantastic throughout that whole process. He said 'you are the coach, whatever you need help with I am happy to do'.

"I can see the relationship working well. I am a pretty easy guy to get along with, so it won't be hard."

Kearney's first assignment will be the Anzac test in Brisbane in May. One-sided floggings have been the norm in recent years but Kearney isn't prepared to write off the Kiwis' chances. The only time he bristles during a half-hour interview is when asked whether he'll use the match to find his feet before the World Cup.

"Let me put it this way, I am not dipping my toe in the water, I am going to jump in," he says. "If everyone is fit and we have prepared as best we can, we'll be competitive.

"That's what we want from our Kiwi team, to be competitive.

"We have got some wonderful talent in the NRL and the Super League so I am confident we can be competitive if we do things right."

He does have first-hand experience of exactly how to do it right. In his two seasons at Melbourne, the Storm have set the benchmark in the NRL.

Two minor premierships, consecutive grand finals and the 2007 title suggest the Storm's coaching team know what they're doing.

"You'd think so, we can't be that lucky," quips Kearney, who was headhunted by Storm head coach Bellamy during his final season as a player at Hull FC.

When Bellamy, whom Kearney had played under for two seasons at the Storm, called him mid-way through 2005 with a job offer, it didn't take him long to make up his mind.

"I guess I'd always thought about coaching. It just kind of needed someone to light the flame," says Kearney.

Bellamy's reputation is rapidly approaching the rarefied air inhabited by the likes of Bennett and Jack Gibson, but Kearney says he and fellow assistant Michael McGuire do more than just put the cones out.

"Obviously Craig has the final say but we all have input."

The exact makeup of that coaching team hasn't yet been decided but expect Wiki, whose departure from the international scene has coincided with the Kiwis' dramatic nosedive, to be involved in some capacity.

"The plan is to get someone of Ruben's status but it would be a bit premature of me to say anything at this stage," says Kearney.

Wiki says he'll be available if asked. "If he wants my help then no doubt I'll help a friend in need. I'd do what I could to help the boys get back to where they need to be."

That the Kiwis have fallen so far so fast since their 2005 Tri Nations triumph is doubtless a source of annoyance to both Kearney and Wiki.

Kearney says he is confident he is up to the job of turning the team around but there is no doubting the size of the task he faces.

The ructions at the NZRL after the Nathan Fien grannygate affair and the futile attempt by ousted chairman Andrew Chalmers to modernise the game's governance provided a depressing backdrop to the equally grim on-field efforts during Gary Kemble's brief coaching rein.

And the bumbling and unsuccessful efforts of the NZRL to recruit Wayne Bennett as a coaching saviour have done little to inspire confidence in the new administrative regime.

New chairman Ray Haffenden's description of a conversation with Australian Rugby League chairman Colin Love as akin to talking with God was certainly a far cry from the chest beating and the demands for equal footing that characterised the Brian McClennan era.

Kearney inherits a poorly performing team whose senior players engaged in a public campaign to unseat his predecessor. And he will be working under an administration so weak-willed it actually let that happen.

On the plus side, Kearney has tremendous mana and a steely determination to succeed.

"I'm really confident," he says.

"I wouldn't have dreamed [the chance to coach the Kiwis] would come this quickly but obviously the circumstances have fallen my way.

"It is a wonderful opportunity ... I can only put my best foot forward."


THE RUNDOWN

Name: Stephen Peter Kearney

Date of birth: June 11, 1972

Age: 35

Born: Paraparaumu

Height: 191cm

Weight: 103kg

Junior club: Kapiti Bears

Senior clubs: Randwick Kingfishers, Western Suburbs Magpies, New Zealand Warriors, Melbourne Storm, Hull FC

International: Kiwis (1993-2004) 45 tests, two as captain

Coaching career: Melbourne Storm, assistant coach 2006-present

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