League: Timing may be Kiwis' No1 enemy

By Michael Brown

The Kiwis couldn't cope in the second half as Australia scored four tries in a 12-minute burst. Photo / Getty Images
The Kiwis couldn't cope in the second half as Australia scored four tries in a 12-minute burst. Photo / Getty Images

Even though Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney has had five years to build his squad for the upcoming World Cup, there's a sense the tournament might be 12 months too soon for his emerging side.

They might have suffered their heaviest Anzac test defeat to Australia since 2009, going down 32-12 in Canberra on Friday night, but there was enough, particularly in the first half, to suggest New Zealand will put up a reasonable fight in the defence of their World Cup title in November.

They put Australia under considerable pressure and it prompted coach Tim Sheens to suggest his players "had that kangaroo-in-the-headlights look" about them. "They had the better of the game [in the first half] and it could have been anything."

The Kiwis couldn't cope in the second half as Australia scored four tries in a 12-minute burst. It didn't help that they completed only three of their 10 sets in the second spell.

Of the 17 who took the field for the Kiwis on Friday night, 11 had fewer than 10 internationals - Tohu Harris made his debut and three others were playing their second test - and they were captained by a 22-year-old earning just his ninth cap. It meant they fielded a team with an average age of just 24 and eight caps.

Compare that to Australia, whose players have a wealth of international and State of Origin experience. Sheens had considered regenerating his ageing squad in time for the World Cup but believes his players will still be near the peak of their powers for the tournament in the England, Wales, Ireland and France.

"Steve is building that squad," Sheens said. "He made a big call with changing the captaincy [when he replaced Benji Marshall]. That would have shaken the group up.

"He knows he's got guys like [Sonny Bill] Williams and Marshall to come back into the squad and he's experimented and moved a lot of young players through that squad in the last 18 months. That's preparing for a World Cup. We are a mature side and we have to be careful whether that tips over and whether that maturity is too mature. We have to look at that but at the moment I am comfortable and confident this group is playing well."

Australia will go into the World Cup as strong favourites, as they always do, but they will be wary of a New Zealand side who traditionally improve over the course of a tournament. The Kiwis don't have the luxury of being involved in Origin, when players can work on combinations, and it has been one of the main reasons why Australia have dominated the Anzac test since 1998.

Despite the scoreline, Kearney was encouraged by what he saw from his players on and off the park, especially considering they were without the likes of Williams, Marshall, Jeremy Smith, Krisnan Inu, Sam Kasiano and Greg Eastwood and then lost captain Simon Mannering on the day before the test.

Shaun Johnson was nearly another casualty, with the Warriors playmaker struggling with a troubling knee complaint. Kearney came close to putting in an emergency call to Thomas Leuluai, who was unavailable for family reasons, or he might have otherwise had to plump for utility Elijah Taylor in the halves.

"Twelve months ago, if we had that amount of experience withdraw a week before the test match, dead set I would be pulling my hair out and going, 'what the hell are we going to do here'?" he said. "But all week I felt really comfortable.

"It was a different energy without Benji and Jeremy, but I'm really encouraged. I know where we are trying to get to and what we are trying to do. We would have been better in another 12 months' time because we would have been further down the track with this team but that doesn't stop us from working towards that goal."

The World Cup will start with a potentially awkward encounter against a Samoa side stacked with former Kiwis before rounding out their pool games against France and Papua New Guinea. If they can win their group, they could meet Tonga in the quarter-finals before a possible match-up with England in the semifinals.

- APNZ

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