League: Amid the fuss, Kearney keeps eye on the future

By Michael Brown

2013 World Cup ended on a bad note for the Kiwis, so coach Stephen Kearney came up with a new plan. Michael Brown explains why it's out with the old, in with the new.

Stephen Kearney addresses his depleted Kiwis team at training in Sydney this week. The side have an average age of 24 and eight tests and there will be five debutants. Photo / Getty Images
Stephen Kearney addresses his depleted Kiwis team at training in Sydney this week. The side have an average age of 24 and eight tests and there will be five debutants. Photo / Getty Images

As the Australian team filed past Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney and into Allianz Stadium for their captains run yesterday, someone helpfully pointed out it was not a bad Aussie team.

"It's not a bad Kiwi team either, mate," Kearney quickly shot back.

It's not if you listened to a number of commentators this week. Talkback and forums have been hot on the topic and the NZRL had to remove 200 comments on its Facebook page on Tuesday morning because of the nasty nature of many of them.

The Sydney media have also been fairly savage, with some saying the Kiwis are disrespecting the test with their selections and it's inevitably led to questions about the validity of the annual Anzac encounter.

Interestingly, one Sydney newspaper said the NSW Origin side were "cursed" because they will have up to nine players missing for the first game later this month yet the Kiwis were disrespecting the Anzac test even though they are missing 14 players through injury.

"If New Zealand do not care enough about Friday's test to name their strongest team available, why should the rest of us?" Paul Kent wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

That it is a severely weakened Kiwis side is undeniable. Kieran Foran, Issac Luke and Thomas Leuluai are the biggest losses and their presence would change the complexion of the narrative, but they are also without Ben Matulino, Kevin Locke, Frank Pritchard, Alex Glenn, Manu Ma'u, Jason Taumalolo, Elijah Taylor, Josh Hoffman, Jeremy Smith, Sam McKendry and Manu Vatuvei.

It has meant Ben Henry, a second-rower, will be chucked into hooker for his first game in the position in his international debut, and Isaac John has been plucked out of reserve grade to suit up at five-eighth, where he's likely to share the duties with sizeable second-rower Tohu Harris.

With such an inexperienced and makeshift spine and the mercurial Shaun Johnson running the side, there is the potential for things to get ugly.

"I'm not too fazed by [the criticism]," Kearney said. "We were going to pick the side on form and the future in mind. Injuries have played a big part in the selection process but I am very, very happy with the group we have. I know they will go out and do a great job for our jumper, our country, and play with a great deal of spirit and pride."

The biggest debate has centred on the non-selection of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, and the overlooking of Sonny Bill Williams.

Williams said he was unavailable but Kearney responded by saying he wasn't going to pick last year's Rugby League International Federation Player of the Year anyway and settled on that weeks ago because of the cross-code star's impending return to rugby.

Kenny-Dowall's non-selection is straightforward. He's a right centre and would have had to do something special to oust Dean Whare.

Waerea-Hargreaves is often labelled one of the world's best front-rowers, and he can be fearsome, but he doesn't always back that up. Against England in last year's World Cup semifinal he accumulated 56m from nine runs - Sam Burgess scored a try, set up another and ran for 173m - and against Australia it was a miserly 38m from seven carries.

Many in the Australian side have expressed surprise and even relief Waerea-Hargreaves wasn't selected and Peter Sterling said in his Telegraph column it was "hard to fathom" why Kearney left out Waerea-Hargreaves, Kenny-Dowall and Frank-Paul Nuuausala.

"They may not have been standouts in the opening eight weeks of the NRL but I wouldn't describe them as being out of form," he wrote. "With so many rookies involved and Shaun Johnson the most capped player in their spine, I would have thought it even more important to have some tough nuts alongside him who understand the pressure of test football."

Kearney's reluctance to talk about particular players has meant the stench of Stilnox has hovered over the week and certain individuals. It hasn't helped that Williams was reportedly caught up in this and wasn't considered.

There's no doubt the sleeping pills and energy drinks episode has done a lot of damage to the Kiwi brand on and off the field. Kearney denied it played any part in his picks but fellow selector Richie Barnett pointedly writes in his Herald column today that "respect for the jersey is high on our list of prerequisites".

The players have talked enthusiastically this week about pride and passion but that will get them only so far. Kearney had a young, inexperienced side at last year's World Cup but has an even greener batch for tonight's test, given their average age of 24 and eight tests and that five are debutants.

It's vastly different from what Australia will field and they face a different challenge. They have seven in their 30s and only one under 25.

Kearney was recently reappointed and there's an expectation he will still be in charge in 2017 but NZRL boss Phil Holden has felt compelled to defend his coach and selection team.

"Richie Barnett, Tawera Nikau, Tony Iro and Stephen Kearney are four former distinguished Kiwis players," he said. "There's no way they are going to select a team that disrespects the history and prestige of the black and white jersey."

In many respects, tonight's game can't come soon enough for the Kiwis. They may not win - in fact, it would be a miracle if they did - but a good performance might help them move on from last year's World Cup.

- NZ Herald

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