Kearney keeping close eye on Cup prospects
With the Rugby League World Cup 112 days away from commencing, Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney is starting to get excited.
This week's announcement that Ivan Cleary will be the assistant coach is another piece of the puzzle that Kearney has put into place as he attempts to defend the title won five years ago.
There is still a while yet before the playing squad is selected, but Kearney says there are a number of players in the NRL that are standing out for him.
"There are guys that have jumped out," said Kearney, who spent the week in Auckland along with the Broncos squad as they prepared for last night's game against the Storm in Melbourne.
"Tohu Harris is one, Bryson Goodwin is another and their performances have put them in the frame.
"For us, it is evolving but I don't think there is going to be anyone now from outside the spectrum that's going to come and say pick me for the World Cup.
"The World Cup is a few months away and I can't tell you who's going to be there, but I know we have guys playing good footy at the moment and there is still more than a third of the season to go, including the finals."
Benji Marshall doesn't fall into the category of being a bolter for the World Cup squad, but Kearney was saved from having to make the call to drop him from the side for the Anzac test in April because his former captain was injured.
Marshall was badly out of sorts at the beginning of this season, but then so were most of the Wests Tigers players. In the last few weeks, though, both club and player have turned the corner.
"It is no coincidence that the Tigers are playing well as a group and that Benji is also playing better," Kearney said.
"Adam Blair had his best game of the season against the Raiders a couple of weeks ago and to beat Melbourne was an accomplishment.
"The key players in those teams are playing better and definitely Benji and Adam are among those players."
When the Kiwis shocked Australia to beat the Kangaroos 34-20 at the World Cup five years ago, it gave the sport one of the biggest boosts it's ever had in this country.
While league is still dwarfed by the 15-man code, that success in Brisbane was celebrated throughout the country and if the Kiwis can win the title again, Kearney believes it will make another huge impact.
"It will mean the same as what it meant last time," he said.
"It means a great deal, we've always been punching from way back and there have been a number of people slaving away for our game for a long time, with not a great deal of reward.
"But they do it because they love the game and for me that was the biggest pleasure of winning the World Cup the last time.
"The Mad Butcher has a profile, but there are a thousand Mad Butchers at grassroots level around New Zealand.
"Every grassroots club has got people in it who've been in rugby league for a long time and they hadn't seen a great deal of reward for all of their effort on the national stage.
"So to see the team hold up the World Cup, I could feel what they were feeling and for me, that was the greatness about that night.
"We have an opportunity to do that again, but I am under no illusion about it. The mountain is higher now and the brick wall is thicker, but we'll attack it the same way as we did last time, with real fire perseverance and we have a belief within the group."