SYDNEY - Former captain Stephen Kearney has backed Kiwis Roy Asotasi and David Kidwell, saying their stunning outbursts against coach Gary Kemble stemmed from sheer frustration with the New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL).
Kidwell today followed Asotasi's lead in demanding Kemble's removal as head coach, sending more shockwaves through the NZRL whose board meets on Friday to discuss a role for Australian coaching guru Wayne Bennett.
"We want to win the World Cup this year, and the players haven't got any confidence in Gary Kemble as coach," Kidwell told Radio Sport.
And Kidwell insisted he and Asotasi, two of the most respected Kiwis players, weren't alone.
"We've got the backing of all the senior players in Australia, you can ring any of them and ask. We wouldn't come out and say this without the backing of them."
The comments drew an annoyed response from new NZRL chairman Ray Haffenden who said he asked Asotasi and Kidwell in a conference call yesterday to keep their views private.
"Ithought I had nipped it in the bud. To me that's the end of the story until we move on at the board meeting on Friday," Haffenden said.
The pressure mounted further on the NZRL today, with former Kiwis fullback Matthew Ridge saying it should bow to the players' demands and replace Kemble with Bennett.
Kearney stayed out of the Kemble coaching debate but admitted he sympathised with Asotasi and Kidwell who could face NZRL disciplinary action for their comments.
Both had been stewing over what action they would take since the NZRL reappointed Kemble last month.
"They clearly felt their message hadn't been heard," Kearney told NZPA.
"I know Roy Asotasi very well and there's no way he'd come out and make comments like that unless he felt very strongly.
"If it was Willie Mason saying it, you might just think, oh, okay, but this is Roy and David Kidwell. There's something to be said for that.
"They're not just looking after their own interests, they've got a real respect for the Kiwi jumper and they want to carry that forward."
NZRL director of football Graham Lowe illustrated the impasse yesterday when he said no players were consulted at the review of last year's disastrous tour of Europe which included a 0-3 loss to Great Britain and a narrow win over France.
Kearney, now assistant coach of defending NRL champions the Melbourne Storm, admitted it would be difficult for Kemble to have any role with the Kiwis after this week's events.
"I don't know Gary that well, but respect is something that you always need from your players.
"These players come from highly professional environments in the NRL.
Some of the feedback I've had suggests that was far from the case on the Kiwi tour.'
Kearney said he was still staggered at the NZRL cutting Brian McClennan loose last year.
McClennan wanted to coach both the Kiwis and British club Leeds, but the NZRL invoked the rule stating the national coach must reside in New Zealand.
Ironically, this rule may have to be scrapped if the NZRL employ Bennett in a major coaching role.
"The guy that took them to a tri-series win (McClennan in 2005), I can't see what was wrong with him," Kearney said.
Kidwell meanwhile played down talk of a player walkout, as long as Bennett was given a prominent role.
"I won't comment on that. Hopefully it won't get that far.
"If Gary's still coach and Wayne's got a role we'll have to take that. We just want to get this matter sorted now instead of later, down the track."