The Good: On their day, the Kiwis are one of the most thrilling sights in Rugby League. When they are at their best, they manage to combine fiercely confrontational forward play with scything penetration in the backs, all augmented by midfield generals dictating the play to the opposition. This Kiwi side certainly has the personnel to cause maximum carnage up front but they also appear to have a budding amount of young attacking talent waiting for the opportunity to blossom.
The Bad: Since winning the Tri-Nations in 2005, New Zealand have won four test matches: two against Great Britain (both in the 2006 Tri-Nations) a last gasp victory against a supposedly inferior France, and a warm-up game against Tonga on Saturday. Certainly since 2007 they haven’t really managed to get beyond mediocre, and the fact that both Australia and Great Britain kept them scoreless in separate Test matches last year is a damning statistic indeed. The feelgood factor that surrounded the Kiwis three years ago has largely evaporated, and it is essential for their chances in this tournament that Stephen Kearney rediscovers it.
The Ugly: Sonny Bill, two words have been hanging over the Kiwis the last few months like a persistent cough that just won’t get better (sorry, I’m ill as I write this). Whilst the Kiwis would undoubtedly have preferred to have SBW in their side, they will have to find a way to get over it.
The Key: New Zealand have a lot of brawn. Do they have any brains? The key to this side functioning successfully is for the forwards to get direction and the outside backs to get service, and it’s no coincidence that the relative decline of the Kiwis in the last 18 months or so coincides with the retirement of Stacey Jones. However, many key creative players like Lance Hohaia and Thomas Leuluai have had fairly successful seasons. If the Kiwi halves really click together (and on the evidence of the Tonga game, they just might) then New Zealand could make a real push for this tournament.
The Coach: Stephen Kearney is a Kiwi legend, playing for his country 45 times. However, as Gary Kemble found out, such a thing is no guarantee of coaching success. Kearney’s day job is as Assistant Coach for the Melbourne Storm, meaning that he has had the opportunity to see the best of the NRL at close hand. It will also be a tremendous benefit to him to have Wayne Bennett, someone who’s been there, done that at every level of the game, as one of his assistants.
Star Man: New Zealand have avoided a potential scare with Steve Matai being declared fit to start the World Cup. A stand-out defender, his centre play could prove essential in attack as the Kiwis will look to throw it wide. A hard worker, he comes into this World Cup in fantastic form having been a major player in Manly’s run to Premiership success this season.
Wild Card: Benji Marshall. Three years ago he was the most potent attacking weapon in Rugby League. However, a large portion of his time since then has been spent on the injury list. Has his devlopment been curtailed, or can Benji’s twinkle-toes wreak havoc once more? It will be a massive boost to the entertainment factor of this tournament if Benji is firing on all cylinders.
Young Gun: Isaac Luke could be a key component to this Kiwi side for years to come. Bursting onto the NRL scene last year, he has consolidated his position as a dummy-half with a future in the game. With midfield potency being especially crucial for this side, it is important for New Zealand that Luke announces himself on the international scene during this tournament.
In Conclusion… I honestly don’t know what to make of the Kiwis in this tournament. On the one hand losing Sonny Bill, Roy Asotasi and Brent Webb would be a massive blow to any team, on top of which they have generally sucked for the 18 months. However, Stephen Kearney has had only one Test as coach of this side, and the Kiwis are nearly always play better in post-season tests than mid-season ones. If the Kiwis are going to play like they have been for the last eighteen months then they won’t come close to the trophy. However, on the evidence of the Tonga game I suspect that Kearney and Bennett have found a way to get the best out of this squad. If that’s the case, then anything is possible.
Squad: Adam Blair (Melbourne Storm), Nathan Cayless (captain, Parramatta Eeels), Greg Eastwood (Brisbane Broncos), David Fa’alogo (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Nathan Fien (New Zealand Warriors), Dene Halatau (Wests Tigers), Bronson Harrison (Wests Tigers), Lance Hohaia (New Zealand Warriors), Krisnan Inu (Parramatta Eels), David Kidwell (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Thomas Leuluai (Wigan Warriors), Jeff Lima (Melbourne Storm), Issac Luke (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Simon Mannering (New Zealand Warriors), Sika Manu (Melbourne Storm), Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers), Steve Matai (Manly Sea Eagles), Sam Perrett (Sydney Roosters), Sam Rapira (New Zealand Warriors), Jerome Ropati (New Zealand Warriors), Setaimata Sa (Sydney Roosters), Jeremy Smith (Melbourne Storm), Manu Vatuvei (New Zealand Warriors)