NEW ZEALAND coach Stephen Kearney says the Kiwis have a huge challenge ahead of them to beat an improving England in a three-match Test series on foreign soil.
New Zealand have arrived without the services of 2014 Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson, captain Simon Mannering, stand-off Kieran Foran and a host of other key members. Kearney believes England are a tough opponent regardless of who is available in his team.
“We understand it’s a huge challenge ahead for us, regardless of who is in and who is out,” he said.
“It was always going to be a challenge. Watching the English side over the last two years, if you take us back to 2013 and the semi-final at Wembley, England didn’t had a great deal of good luck. It took a play from us in the last few minutes of that semi-final to win the game.
“After that England should have beaten Australia in Melbourne last year in the Four Nations and it was a toss of the coin with us in Dunedin. So it’s a huge challenge, but we’re confident in the sense that we know if we take our best performance to the KC Stadium in a week’s time then we give ourselves a great opportunity.”
Kearney, who is an assistant coach to Wayne Bennett at the Brisbane Broncos, said he has been kept informed about the talent of young England halfback George Williams by former Wigan utility and Kiwi playmaker Thomas Leuluai.
“We’ve been fortunate this year with the Broncos to play against him in the World Club Series,” said Kearney.
“Thomas has given me a fair bit of gossip on George. He rates him highly. He’s a very good runner of the football, which I saw earlier on in the year, so he’s a very good player.” The New Zealand coach said it will be the whole team’s responsibility to support his team’s young halfbacks Peta Hiku and Tuimoala Lolohea, as they are newcomers to the international scene who are expected to take the places of Johnson and Foran.
On the other hand, Kearney is looking to two of his more experienced stars in Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to deliver the goods. “We’ve got a pretty handy hooker there and a pretty handy fullback,” Kearney said.
“In saying that, there’s some real experience around those guys also. So far I’ve been really encouraged by how everyone’s chipped in to help those two young players. They’re very talented individuals and everyone’s role within the group is to help them. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Kearney will make his own return to the KC Stadium this Sunday a decade after spending a season playing for Hull FC in Super League, when he helped them to a Challenge Cup victory over Leeds Rhinos at Cardiff in 2005. “I had a wonderful ten months at Hull,” he said. “I certainly had some fine memories there but it’s not about my return, it’s about the team and we’ve got a job to do at the stadium.
“I’m sure there’ll be a wonderful crowd at the KC. For some of our lads it will be a new experience, because until Friday at Leeds they hadn’t played in front of an English crowd. The one thing I like about English football is that they’re certainly well-supported.”