Sport, best of the year: 3 The Kiwis

By David Leggat

Bluey and his boys. It's been over half a century since the Kiwis have beaten the Kangaroos in anything resembling a series.

So Brian McClennan deserves a huge pat. Sure, the players were outstanding in beating the Aussies at Sydney, almost did the double at Ericsson Stadium, then walloped the Kangaroos to win the Tri-Nations title in England 24-0.

One more time: 24-0. Zip, nil, the big fat zero, nada.

McClennan clearly has the ability to extract something extra from his players. The Kiwis haven't become significantly better footballers than they were a year ago, so something has clicked. Step forward Bluey.

He wears his heart on his sleeve. Remember his reaction to the stumbling performance in losing to Great Britain in the round robin, the repeated pounding of the rail in the grandstand?

Remember, too, his jubilation after the final. There's nothing po-faced about McClennan. He looks the sort of guy who'd be good value over a beer in the bar, a coach who thinks deeply and yet can speak in the simple terms footballers the world over appreciate and understand.

He was able to winkle Stacey Jones out of retirement, but had stellar contributions from captain Ruben Wiki - and who says big, hard league men don't shed a tear - and the likes of Nigel Vagana, Brent Webb and Paul Rauhihi.

The Australians didn't like it. Coach Wayne Bennett resigned, Ricky Stuart has been appointed, promising more passion.

But the Kiwis are setting the pace. The signs are, providing McClennan can keep his core together (and don't forget Benji Marshall and Sonny Bill Williams are still to come in) the Kiwis can go from being occasional winners over their old rivals to fair dinkum 50-50 chances every time they run out.

Memo NZRL: don't lose this bloke McClennan.

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