David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

The Big Read: Media shy 'Mooks' a man ahead of his time

New Warriors coach brings loyalty, honesty and integrity.
New Warriors head coach Stephen Kearney has always been wary of the media which makes him seem an intense character. Photo / Getty Images
New Warriors head coach Stephen Kearney has always been wary of the media which makes him seem an intense character. Photo / Getty Images

Entering Stephen Kearney's office at Warriors headquarters, I'm wondering how I'll raise the topic of his previous ill-fated NRL head coaching stint at the Parramatta Eels.

But Kearney beats me to the punch, with a dry joke he delivers at his own expense.

"I used to have one of these at Parramatta," he says of the small bench seat he's arranging for me to sit on. "I used to sleep on it a lot, in the foetal position mostly."

Kearney's wisecrack simultaneously obliterated my belief that he'd prefer to keep a closed lid on his darkest coaching experience, while also revealing another lighter far more humorous side to the stern intensity that has come to define the image of the new Warriors' coach.

Getting much out of him has often proved difficult, with Kearney demonstrating the same defensive zeal with media that made him stand out as a tough-tackling second-rower during playing stints with Western Suburbs, the Warriors and Melbourne and throughout 45 tests for New Zealand in the 1990s and 2000s.

Assistant coaching roles alongside two of the best in the business in Melbourne's Craig Bellamy (2006-2010) and Brisbane's Wayne Bennett (2015-2016) -- mentors that share his desire to remain out of the game's bright lights -- bookended a turbulent two-year head stint with the Eels (2011-2012) which left him even more wary of the fourth estate.

Those closest to him agree that Kearney can be guarded but explain that his desire to live a private life away from football is matched only by his loyalty, honesty and integrity.

"He doesn't give too much away but he is his own man," explains Storm coach Craig Bellamy.

"The big thing about him is he's very loyal to people who are loyal to him. And the other big thing is, he's just a great person, a really decent person.

"He treats people with respect and he gets treated with respect in return.

"He's always had his values and beliefs and they're up there with the highest qualities you can have as a person."

Those values and a fierce determination helped build his reputation as a one of the game's most professional players and earned him a NRL premiership win with Melbourne Storm in 1999.

However, his intense focus on preparation and getting the best out of his body was often at odds with the more laidback approach shared by many of his team-mates.

In an era where heavy drinking sessions were an almost compulsory component of overseas tours and post-match celebrations, Kearney earned the wrath of senior players for his refusal to over-indulge.

Former test and Warriors team-mate Quentin Pongia admits he misunderstood his friend's relentless and rigid professionalism and wrongly viewed his reluctance to hit the bottle as a roadblock to fitting in with the rest of the team.

"He copped plenty of flak from us because we were the old school bunch and we put a lot of pressure on him because of the way he was," said Pongia. "Now that I've finished my career I reflect on what I thought was a weakness, and it was actually a real strength from his side.

"He was able to stand and hold his ground in difficult situations where peer pressure was involved and many players folded to that.

"But he always stuck with what he believed in. And he got some pretty hard questions.

"But, typical of Mooksy, he would play it down and laugh it off but he would stay in the room and enjoy the atmosphere and not let that detract from him being a part of the team. He didn't feel like an outcast. When you look at the game now and where it is, he was way ahead of the game."

That strength of character served him well at Parramatta, where he managed just 10 wins from 42 games before resigning with more than a year remaining on his contract.

He was the fifth coach to exit the Eels in six years, reflecting the fact the club's culture and management were in disarray, yet Kearney has never spoken out in anger and refuses to point the finger for his lack of success anywhere other than at himself.

"There's no benefit to me in doing that," he says. "Ultimately it rests with me. I made the decision to join the football club so that's entirely my responsibility, regardless of its shortcomings in whatever way.

"It's taking the lesson from the experience and using that to think 'well, how do I make myself better?' What is the lesson here so I don't find myself in that position again?

"I made a choice to accept that role and I've got to live with what came with it. I take the positives from it."

In explaining the lessons that will help him in his efforts to transform the Warriors into a premiership force, he acknowledges the benefits of operating within an organisation unified in their goals and ambitions.

"Football clubs are about people ultimately," he said. "I've learned over time in this game that football clubs are about people and the better quality of the people involved the better opportunity you give your football club to succeed."

He said Warriors managing director Jim Doyle and his team "all want the best for our club and for our game here, so, to me, you're in the positive already".

Kearney admits his decision to accept the job came partly from a sense of obligation to help both the club he made 79 appearances for as a foundation player (1995-1998) as well as growing the wider national game.

In time, Kearney envisions a future where the Warriors achieve a level of consistency that will redefine the club and change the common perception that even the strongest supporters of the team regretfully hold: that they are mentally frail and unreliable week to week. "That's what I feel my responsibility is -- to build a football club and a culture that makes people who watch league and the Warriors, and who are fans and members and rugby league people, proud of who they're watching on the weekend.

"And proud in the sense that when they play they can see 'okay that's who we are and that's what we look like'. The way we defend or the way we attack, that's the vision that I have for them.

"Over the past few years the perception of the team and who we are as a club has been determined by everyone else apart from the people that are here wearing the jerseys.

"Have we helped that perception over the course of last few years? Of course not. But we're in control of that.

"I know there are going to be days where it's not going to go our way, but what I want is for every time we take the field, we're trying to give it our best shot or trying to get close to our potential."

After enjoying close associations with two of the game's glamour clubs, having steered the Kiwis to unprecedented highs and seen the demoralising depths during his time in blue and gold, he is firm in his ideas of what success looks like and wants to sow those qualities at Mt Smart Stadium.

"At both Melbourne and Brisbane, it's not about a quick fix, it's long-term success and I feel that I have a bit of an understanding of what that is.

"Five, six years ago [at Parramatta], was I able to articulate that effectively enough? Maybe not. But I do have an awareness of what that is."

Heading into tomorrow's season opening clash against Newcastle at Mt Smart, Kearney cuts a relaxed figure which indicates he's sleeping better than he did on the small bench back at Parramatta.

"If that can't prepare me for the tough times then I'm not too sure what will."

The facts

Nickname: Mooks.
Born: 11 June 1972 (age 44).
Place of birth: Paraparaumu, Wellington.
Playing career: 288 first grade games.
Western Suburbs: 46 games, 1992-1994.
Auckland Warriors: 79 games, 1995-1998.
Melbourne Storm: 139 games, 1999-2004.
Hull FC: 24 games, 2005.

Rep football

Wellington: 7 games, 1991.
New Zealand Kiwis: 45 tests, 1993-2004.

Coaching career

New Zealand Kiwis 2008-2016.
Parramatta 2011-2012.
Warriors 2017.

- NZ Herald

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