Saturday, 12 November 2016

Alarm Bells Ringing for Kiwis

Since the introduction of the expanded format for the Rugby League World Cup in 1995, there has been 4 WC Tournaments take place, 1995, 2000, 2008 and 2013. The key to having a successful campaign at a World Cup should begin almost immediately following the commencement of the previous Tournament.

 One of the decisions that should be at the very top of the priority list is who you intend on taking the nation forward in a coaching capacity with a strong list of contingency plans should Plan A fall through, as we saw with Kearney when taking on the Head Coaching role at the Warriors and having to reluctantly hand over the reigns to the Kiwi side. The fact that we are a little over 12 months out from the 2017 WC and the powers that be decided to give the Head Coach position to Kidwell may well be the teams achilles heal and be the difference between the Kiwis potentially reclaiming the coveted trophy and walking away empty handed.

As far as preparation goes, the Kiwis seem to be well behind the 8 ball in comparison to their main opponents, England and Australia, in one area particularly. Like NZ, both England and Australia have opted for coaching changes in recent times, the difference being the massive gulf in class between each countries respective selections.

In February it was announced that Wayne Bennett had accepted the Head Coach role for England. I doubt i need to go into detail about what Bennett can do with sides that he is involved in as his record speaks for itself. Arguably the best coach of the modern era with a knack of getting the best out of players in his teams.

It was announced in December last year that Meninga would be the man to lead the Australian side into the next World Cup. Some say his coaching record is nothing flash at club level, i disagree. During his stint as Raiders head coach between 1997-2001, the Green Machine managed to finish 3rd, 7th, 9th, 4th and 11th respectively.

Apart from his final season where the club finished in 11th position, Meninga had a very successful stint in charge of the Raiders. The year they ended up in 9th position saw them finish on 31 points. Since the introduction of the Top 8, no club has missed the 8 scoring as many points and it wasn't until the 2016 season where Canberra actually managed to score more points than they did in that 1999 season.

Let's not forget what Mal managed to do with the Queensland State of Origin side, he managed to turn them from a team that looked as though they might be on the wrong end of a NSW dynasty and completely flipped the scenario by turning the Maroons into arguably the most dominant Origin side in history.

Then we have the Kiwis and their newly elected coach in Kidwell and his coaching pedigree. While i am under no illusion that it is still early days for him as a coach and he may very well become a successful coach at International level, it's hard to understand why the NZRL would decide to blood a rookie so close to a World Cup.

While it may not have been ideal or part of the plan for the NZRL not to have the luxury of having Kearney remain at the helm right through until the World Cup, it is not an excuse for not being better prepared. They should have had a contingency plan for the possibility of Kearney not being able to continue on in his role, a contingency plan that isn't blooding a rookie but being able to bring in an experienced and successful coach into the vacant position.

You need to look no further than the way Jim Doyle explained the process of Kearney replacing Cappy at the Warriors. Both himself and the club had plans in motion should Cappy not fulfill what was required of him during the season which potentially would have left the club needing to find a new coach, which is how it turned out in the end. Doyle spoke of how he not only had a wishlist of coaches should the occasion arise but had also been in talks with those in his sights for months in advance. With the level of professionalism now on display in the Rugby League world, a knee jerk reaction to a bump in the road is not acceptable and poor performances on the field are the side effect to such reactions.

In only the handful of games that Kidwell has been in control of we've already seen some worrying signs. While some may seem like non-issues and others can be put down to experience or lack thereof, they all add up to a failure in setting up a platform that provides the side with the best possible chance of victory. Some examples from the top of my head on what has or has not been on display already from Kidwell should have even the heartiest Kiwi supporter sitting on edge are;

  • Not settling on a goal kicker. In the one off test we had Luke kicking, Kahu vs the Poms in the opening round of the 4 Nations and Johnson in the game against the Aussies. Goal kicking is as much skill as it is routine and chopping and changing kickers in every game does nothing but disrupt routine.
  • The lack of minutes for Taumololo in the Perth Test. Having the head coach of your international team simply "forget" to bring on the best forward in the NRL and subsequently leave him languish on the bench is unacceptable. 
  • Only playing Eastwood for 15 minutes vs Australia and having the response of "i just couldn't get him on". Considering the massive defensive effort the Kiwis were forced to endure and with some of the big lads looking gassed, i find it strange that he couldn't find a way to bring on fresh legs.
  •  The constant referring to "we're improving every week". After the Perth game it's hard not to improve as i don't think we could have been any worse. We were average at the very best against the poms and no better against the Aussies. With the current squad at his disposal, which is one of the stronger ones named in recent times, this team should be playing at a much, MUCH higher standard than what we've seen so far.
  • Explaining how "proud" he was of the team after their performance against Australia. Don't get me wrong here, everyone can be proud of the way the team managed to defend their own line when the Aussies seemed to be camped down that end. The fact of the matter is that the reason we were forced to defend our line so ferociously was due to our own poor handling and/or discipline. We coughed up simple ball, we gave away silly penalties (with a number of them being on 4th and 5th tackles), we were completely out muscled in the arm wrestle up front with the Kangaroos looking like they were making metres with ease up through the middle while we struggled to even get out of our own end for long periods of the game, our kicks and kick chases were poor when we had the opportunity to pin the opposition either in-goal or deep in their own half and our defense everywhere on the field apart from our goal line was borderline terrible with missed tackles regularly allowing the Aussies to get out of trouble and almost instantly put us back under pressure. 
  • SKD seemingly getting chance after chance while being in terrible form.

From what i have seen on display with both the team efforts and some of the coaching decisions, this side is a long way from what they are capable of. We're seeing some of our big players who are normally performing at an extremely high level for their respective clubs fail to deliver so far at international level under Kidwell. We've rarely looked as though we've been able to get out of 2nd gear which leads you to believe the coach is struggling to motivate the players accordingly prior to the game. If a new head coach is struggling to get energy levels up from his players this early on in his International Career then one must hold grave concerns over his ability to have the playing squads full and undivided trust and attention, if he is struggling to have that now then it's hard to see that improving in the future.

At the end of the day all i can do is hope that i am wrong and that i am made to eat my own words on the back end of some much improved performances. It's important to note that my concerns are a direct result based on what has been said and done up to this date of Kidwells time as Kiwis head coach. It is in no way meant to be a sign of disrespect to a legendary Kiwi and i will support him as coach of the Kiwis for as long as he is in that role, that doesn't mean i won't express my concerns and as it stands, i have a few.

Written by Gareth Sykes

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