This World Cup was supposed to be a golden new chapter for Kiwis league. With the tournament held on these shores for the first time, New Zealand had a chance to repeat the historic triumph of 2008, when Nathan Cayless lifted the trophy. Injury blows and some last minute defections from the team dampened some expectations, but no one could have foreseen their worst ever performance, as they missed out on the semi-finals due to a shock loss to Fiji in the quarter-finals. So what went wrong? Michael Burgess dissects the anatomy of a disaster that had its genesis more than 12 months earlier.
Here is how the Kiwis' 2017 Rugby League World Cup campaign collapsed before it had even begun ...
September 2016: Stephen Kearney's abrupt departure
The Warriors' awful end to the 2016 season saw coach Andrew McFadden sacked. Stephen Kearney was his replacement. He had been lined up by then chief executive Jim Doyle for months but the last minute decision caught most by surprise, especially the New Zealand Rugby League and left an unexpected vacancy for the Kiwis on the eve of the World Cup.
September 2016: David Kidwell appointed
Kidwell was appointed as Kiwis' coach four days after Kearney's resignation. Some questioned his lack of head coach experience, which amounted to one season with the Rabbitohs Under-20 side and a Junior Kiwis stint. But his experience as an assistant with the Storm and Tigers, as well as time under Kearney with the Kiwis (2014 and 2015) were emphasised as key factors in the decision to hire him.
Kidwell's first mistakes?
Kearney offered to come across to Perth to help with preparations for the end-of-season test, but Kidwell declined that support. Kidwell also choose to anoint Jesse Bromwich as his new captain. It was a look to the future, but seemed unnecessary given incumbent Simon Mannering's status in the game.
Kangaroos 26 Kiwis 6 (Perth)
The Kiwis struggled against the Kangaroos, looking underdone and rusty. Kidwell was also widely criticised by the Australian media for leaving Jason Taumalolo on the bench for long spells of the match. Taumalolo looked bemused about the matter when questioned later that week.
2016 Four Nations tour
Kidwell was denied the services of Mannering (injury) and Kieran Foran (unavailable) and recalled Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who had been on the outer since the 2013 World Cup. The trip started well — with a 17-16 win over England — but that was followed by a close loss to Australia, before a shock 18-18 draw with Scotland.
The touring party appeared to form several cliques, and it didn't seem to be a completely harmonious and united squad. Bromwich was still learning the reins as captain, and Justin Morgan — on reflection — was a bizarre choice as assistant coach, given he had been an unpopular figure during his time at Mt Smart under Andrew McFadden. Morgan's decision to do some work for the BBC as a panellist during the tournament also raised some eyebrows. Willie Poching was the other raw lieutenant beside Kidwell. It was noticeable that the Tongan contingent on the team — among them Solomone Kata, David Fusitu'a, Manu Ma'u and Jason Taumalolo became almost inseparable on the tour.
Two members of the Kiwis team were disciplined for drinking until dawn after the loss in Perth. There was a further drama once the squad arrived in London, with two players on the team involved in a minor scuffle late one night. The coaching hierarchy strongly considered sending the pair home but decided against it.
Kidwell's struggles with the interchange and tactics persisted for the whole tournament. The most bizarre episode occurred in the match against Scotland. Joseph Tapine had been lined up to replace Bromwich, but the skipper refused to come off with his team struggling against the Bravehearts. Kidwell insisted that the interchange was made, and it was eventually completed in the 39th minute. There was a similar Clayton's interchange in the final a week later.
Four Nations final
The Kiwis are smashed 34-8, in an embarrassingly one-sided Four Nations final. Kata and Fusitu'a, who had never played together on the left edge, are torn apart by the Australian attack while Tohu Harris struggles in the unfamiliar No6 jersey.
Kidwell's position is endorsed almost immediately by NZRL chief executive Alex Hayton, and he is retained after a review, which is never made public.
May 2017: Meltdown in Canberra
Kidwell and his team were criticised for their lack of media and public activity leading into the Anzac test, with Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga making the issue a talking point. The Kiwis insisted their camp and culture was great, but those claims seemed hollow after an inept performance in the 30-12 loss. The Kiwis fielded their strongest line-up in two years but couldn't get close to the Australians.
Bromwich and Kevin Proctor's misdemeanours outside a Canberra nightclub was a deep cut. The coach acted swiftly — banning both players from the World Cup, which was an admirable and understandable stance. But Bromwich was almost irreplaceable as a prop and forward leader, and neither Russell Packer nor Sydney Roosters enforcer Waerea-Hargreaves offered much in his absence. And it meant that Kidwell — and the NZRL hierarchy — spent much of the next few months discussing the team's culture and how to fix it, including the prospect of an alcohol ban.
Kidwell had little luck with assistant coaches. Steve McNamara left New Zealand to become head coach at Catalan Dragons, while Garth Brennan was snapped up by the Gold Coast Titans days before the World Cup. An attempt to bring Stacey Jones into the fold was blocked by the Warriors, and the potential involvement of NRL premiership-winning Cowboys coach Paul Green never materialised.
New head of selectors Tawera Nikau was outspoken in the buildup to the tournament, even questioning whether Mannering was going to be part of the squad. It seemed unprofessional conduct in a public forum. Kidwell also had to deal with the Warriors malaise, and injury doubts over Shaun Johnson and Foran. Behind the scenes Kidwell was evolving a new attacking strategy, which centred around Taumalolo, though he was yet to meet with the Cowboys lock.
September 2016: Tongan plotting begins
At the end of the Eels-Cowboys NRL semi-final match in Sydney, Taumalolo and Manu Ma'u are in deep discussion. Both had played for the Kiwis a few months earlier, but this is believed to be the moment when Taumalolo told Ma'u of his plans to represent Tonga at the World Cup. Similar discussions were going on privately between other players, while Kiwi winger Dallin Watene Zelezniak was even contacted by a member of the Tongan staff asking if he was interested in switching.
October 2016: The Tongan coup causes chaos
Kidwell's plans came crashing down in the days following the grand final. Tohu Harris was ruled out through injury, followed by Taumalolo's shock u-turn. Ma'u and Fusitu'a then called Kidwell hours before the team was set to be named to confirm their change of heart, while Roosters forward Sio Siua Taukeiaho pulled out the night before. Bondi club teammate Waerea-Hargreaves was recalled from holiday in Fiji, but another potential player ruled himself out as he was already on holiday.
November 2016: Media struggles
Kidwell looked a man under intense pressure at the press conference before the first match against Scotland, with long pauses punctuated by sentences which didn't make too much sense. But the vibe in the Kiwis camp was positive, after a positive three-day stay at a marae in Hamilton.
The Kiwis make a solid start to the World Cup, with wins over Samoa and Scotland. Their attack flows, but their discipline and error rate is a concern. Training regime changeAfter spending time with the All Blacks, Kidwell decides to re-engineer the Kiwis' training routine, with more emphasis put towards the back of the week. Eyebrows are raised though when the New Zealand team complete a double field session, video review and gym work on the Thursday before the loss to Tonga, barely 48 hours before the game. Across the NRL Thursday is typically a rest day, with Wednesday the heaviest load.
Hamilton hell, capital punishment
The dramas of the last 14 months culminate in a bitter eight-day spell, where the Kiwis crash to defeats against Tonga and Fiji in Hamilton and Wellington. A few years ago such a scenario would have been scarcely believable, especially on New Zealand soil, but the collective effect of the chaos and turmoil of the last year comes to a head. From Kidwell being thrown in at the deep end, to discipline problems from the first camp, debatable selection decisions, off field cliques, a cocaine scandal, an unprecedented series of defections, a risky change to the training schedule, untimely injuries and players who couldn't find their form on the big occasion contributed to the lowest point in Kiwis history.