Major lack of homegrown options for Kiwis

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 03/12/2013

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OPINION: The Kiwis may have to appoint an Australian coach if Stephen Kearney's head rolls after the Rugby League World Cup final debacle.

The New Zealand Rugby League abandoned any pretence at a pathway for Kiwi coaches when Gary Kemble was dumped in 2007.

There are no New Zealand head coaches in the NRL - even the Warriors are coached by an Australian in Matt Elliott.

Kearney (at the Brisbane Broncos) and David Kidwell, who is set to join Wests Tigers after a stint with the Melbourne Storm, are on NRL coaching staffs as assistant-coaches.

The All Blacks would have several homegrown options if Steve Hansen handed in his coaching reins for a new career as a harness racing trainer. Wales and British and Irish Lions mentor Warren Gatland or Chiefs' coach Dave Rennie could comfortably fill the void. 

But, it's not so straight-forward for the Kiwis. Their coaching talent pool's about as shallow as a Canterbury Plains stream in mid-summer. Most New Zealand rugby league greats from the 1980s and 1990s aren't currently active as coaches. 

So who could take over from Kearney? Is Kidwell ready for the role? But, like Kearney at the time of his appointment, the former Storm and South Sydney second rower has no head coaching experience at NRL level. Nor - apart from a two-match caretaker stint - does New Zealand Rugby League high performance director and Kiwis manager Tony Iro, who was highly regarded by the Warriors players during his tenure as Ivan Cleary's assistant-coach.

John Ackland enjoyed great success and with the Warriors' under-20 team. He also coached a Samoan squad containing NRL players at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup tournament in Australia.

But Ackland has parted company with the Warriors, who now plan to develop their best young players through the Auckland Vulcans' New South Wales Cup reserve grade team rather than in the NRL under-20 competition.

There are few other Kiwi options outside Kidwell, Iro and Ackland.

The NZRL could be paying the price for the fallout from Kemble's axing after an outbreak of player power on the ill-starred 2007 tour of Great Britain and France. The former Kiwis fullback's coaching methods were criticised as out of date by seasoned NRL players, including Kidwell and captain Roy Asotasi.

He was sacked and some good men fell with him, none more so than highly-credentialed Canterbury Bulls coach Phil Prescott, who had earned respect as Kemble's assistant and would have one day made a worthy Kiwis coach.

Brian (Bluey) McClenann, who coached the Kiwis to the 2005 Tri-Nations title, is still hovering on Auckland's Hibiscus Coast. But he was sacked by the Warriors in 2012 after parting company with British Super League club Leeds where he found early success.Only four New Zealanders, Frank Endacott, Mark Graham, Tony Kemp and McClennan, have coached the Warriors in the club's 18-year history.

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Their most successful coaches were Australian - Daniel Anderson and Ivan Cleary. The latter's pretty much an honorary New Zealander after nine years in Auckland as a player and a coach, so should Cleary get the Kiwis' gig?

Well, he was Kearney's assistant at this World Cup tournament and wasn't able to work the oracle the way Wayne Bennett did in the same role in 2008.

Kearney's confidence may have taken a big hit. The Rugby League World Cup capitulation followed his unhappy head coaching tenure with the Parramatta Eels, which ended in tears. Kearney was sacked in 2012 after 10 wins in 42 matches.

But he did win the World Cup in 2008 - albeit with Bennett pulling the strings - and the 2010 Four Nations grand final at Brisbane's Lang Park. And, he's still only 41, and clearly has room to improve.

So should the NZRL give him another chance or punt him and replace him with Cleary and Iro? Or Iro as the boss and Cleary his assistant. Cleary is head coach of the Penrith Panthers' chocolate soldiers. Does he have time to do the Kiwis' job justice? 

The NZRL could appoint Iro, who's already on their payroll, and give him a year or two to earn his spurs. 
If he falls on his face, they might have to bite the bullet and give the gig to the best Australian available. After all, it wouldn't be the first time. Former Warriors coach Daniel Anderson was in charge from 2003 to 2005.

A New Zealand-born coach - particularly a former player like Kearney, Kidwell or Iro - would be more passionate about the Kiwis' cause than any Australian. But, the NZRL needs the smartest strategist available to beat the near-invincible Aussies in big tournament finals.

- Fairfax Media

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