League: Wealth of talent a test for NZ coach

Kiwi league team coach Stephen Kearney. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Kiwi league team coach Stephen Kearney. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney is "looking forward" to 99 sleepless nights. This Friday marks 100 days until the start of the Rugby League World Cup and Kearney admits this year's team will probably be the most difficult he has had to select.

Instead of previous headaches about who to pick, the problem this time will be who to leave out. Rarely have the Kiwis been in such fine fettle before a tournament.

It's just as well, as the event will be more competitive than ever. England should have a powerhouse forward pack if the Burgess trio and James Graham et al can maintain their NRL form.

The Kangaroos' golden generation (Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater) face possibly their last chance to win a World Cup, with many not likely to beat the 2017 tournament.

Samoa have been bolstered by a string of former Kiwis, while Tonga showed their mettle in the Pacific clash in April. Papua New Guinea, coached by Adrian Lam with assistance from Mal Meninga, have had a dedicated build-up and even France will be tricky on home soil.

Thankfully the Kiwis across the NRL are in great form. Apart from the Warriors' recent upswing, New Zealanders anchor the campaigns of many main contenders.

"It will probably be one of the hardest squads I have ever picked," Kearney told the Herald on Sunday. "There are so many out there playing well, getting down to 24 won't be easy at all."

Take wing as an example. Incumbent Jason Nightingale is a member of the senior leadership group, Sam Perrett has been in stellar form since joining the Bulldogs and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is an exciting talent. Then there is the resurgent Manu Vatuvei and the rocket-heeled Glen Fisiiahi. Of that quintet, Kearney can probably only opt for three.

There are a plethora of options at fullback, several strong candidates at centre and a mountain of, ahem, man-mountains, for the pack. NRL form will play a part; like last year, the longer a club team is involved into the finals can only improve a player's chances, though a test on heavy ground against England or Australia is a different matter to club football in the Australian spring.

Kearney admitted a few players had caught his eye in the past month, which augurs well for some Warriors. Kearney doesn't like to compare teams though admits it has been an advantage to have more time with players with recent initiatives like the senior leadership group and the Kiwis heritage camp at Manly.

It is likely only around one third of the 2008 team will figure this year. A few of them have retired, many are in the twilight of their careers and at this stage only Greg Eastwood, Thomas Leuluai, Issac Luke, Benji Marshall (depending on his league future), Sam Perrett and Jeremy Smith look probable selections, as does captain Simon Mannering. Other 2008 survivors such as Krisnan Inu, Manu Vatuvei, Sam Rapira and Adam Blair will push their case across the rest of this season. Meanwhile, the NZRL confirmed yesterday that Kiwis will play the Cook Islands in a Cup warm up match in Doncaster on October 21 (NZT). We wanted a decent hit-out under English conditions before the World Cup, said Kiwis' manager Tony Iro.

- Herald on Sunday

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