It’s a big year for… Stephen Kearney

2018 looms as a pivotal year for a host of great Kiwi athletes, teams and sporting figures. Over coming weeks, Newsroom details the challenges that lie ahead for this nation’s best and fairest. This time, Warriors NRL coach Stephen Kearney.

It’s not just about him. That’s the theme that comes through most strongly over a lengthy chat with Warriors coach Stephen Kearney about what lies ahead in 2018.

Yes, now that he’s into the second year of his contract at the unsolvable riddle that is the Warriors NRL club, Kearney finds himself at the sharp point of the needle. If the Warriors continue to fail in 2018, it is Kearney who will bear the brunt of the blame. That’s part of the gig.

But being the guy in the gun doesn’t mean Kearney alone possesses the tools to engineer a turnaround the club – and indeed the sport - in this country desperately needs.

Having rarely lived up to the dreams and expectations of their fans over 22 years, the Warriors are an inverse fairytale: they’re a pumpkin waiting for the clock to strike midnight so that they can turn into Cinderella.

Kearney draws on a nocturnal analogy of his own to describe the situation at a club that last won a game on June 23, 2017: a night-time road trip to Rotorua.

“I know where we want to go and my lights are shining,” he says. “But the reality is you can’t look too far past where your headlights can see.”

Rotorua still feels a long way off for a club mired in a nine-match losing streak; a club that hasn’t visited the promised land of the NRL finals since 2011.

Is Kearney the right man to engineer what needs to be a dramatic reversal in fortunes?

On paper, he should be. As a player he did it all, won it all, and was a consummate professional in the process. As a coach, he has been schooled by Wayne Bennett at Brisbane and Craig Bellamy at Melbourne, and carved out a stellar record with the Kiwis.

He’s experienced failure as an NRL head coach at Parramatta – and will have learned from that. And he’s a Kiwi with a natural affinity for the players who make up the bulk of the club’s roster. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable candidate for the job.

Even he believes that.

“Am I the right person to turn us around? I have got no question I am the right person. But it is a process.”

It’s also a big job. The Warriors didn’t just fail at the elite NRL level in 2017. A junior production line that was once the envy of the competition appears to have collapsed. The club’s U20s side – for so long a shining beacon of hope – finished stone cold last in the now defunct Holden Cup competition.

That hardly suggests a wealth of talent about to bubble through to the surface.

“There is a lot of stuff we are working to fix,” says Kearney. “So that we do know where our next Simon Mannering is coming from, our next Tohu Harris is coming from. I can’t do that myself. No way. But that is what I want for this club. I want us to be an organisation that every kid in the country who plays rugby league wants to play for.”

Then he clicks his fingers. It isn’t going to happen overnight.

“It is important you start with yourself first. What part did I play in this situation? Can I do my job better? It was an eye-opening experience in that regard. I certainly wasn’t happy with my ‘game’.

- Stephen Kearney

Throw in the Kiwis’ abject 2017 world cup campaign, and 2018 looms as big year not just for Kearney and the Warriors, but the game of rugby league.

Low ebb doesn’t do justice to where a sport that has always had its struggles sits right now. It’s remarkable how far things have fallen, and how fast since the Kearney-coached Kiwis posted an historic three straight victories over the Kangaroos in 2014/15.

Just as he was a central figure in that high point for the code, Kearney figures as central to a potential revival in 2018. As coach of the Warriors, he asserts the greatest influence at a club whose fortunes will serve as a proxy for the entire sport in this country.

But it’s not all about him.

“What I have learned is that I am part of the team myself. Yep, I’ve been given the steering wheel and I steer the bus around, but the reality is if I don’t have the right people in the right seats… what I am saying is it is not just me.”

Last season served up some painful lessons. On and off the field, the Warriors simply weren’t good enough. Kearney accepts the rap for that – or at least his share of it.

“Personally, when I reflect back on it, for myself it was obviously challenging.”

The investigations into what went wrong started with a serious piece of introspection.

“It is important you start with yourself first. What part did I play in this situation? Can I do my job better? It was an eye-opening experience in that regard. I certainly wasn’t happy with my ‘game’.

“What I tried to do was come in and do it the way I thought would work. In doing that, what I neglected was the expertise of certain people around me. It needed to start there. That was the big rock to sort out first.”

Many of the club’s failures in 2017 were defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. Often the team led or were within striking distance after 60 minutes only to fold in the final quarter. A game plan that centred on ball control and minimising errors unravelled under a combination of pressure and fatigue.

In a move touted as one of the biggest ‘signings’ of recent times, the club recruited former Storm and Broncos trainer Alex Corvo to oversee conditioning. That should help, but Kearney knows his former colleague is no panacea.

“It is not just what Alex brings to the table. It is the game style. Do we have the game style that can help us in that situation? Do we have the personnel that can help us in that situation?”

Possibly not. The club’s recruitment for this year has been underwhelming. Much will depend on how journeyman playmaker Blake Green combines with Shaun Johnson, and the impact of Kiwis forwards Tohu Harris and Adam Blair (the former bringing plenty of flair and the latter a good dose of mongrel).

So what would represent success for a club that has finished 14th-11th-9th-13th-10th and then 13th in its past six seasons?

“We have set ourselves a certain game style that we want to play and it is about closing the gap,” says Kearney. “That is the measure of improvement. I am confident if we can meet that and do that then we give ourselves an opportunity to get into the finals. And then there is no limitation on anyone once you are there.”

And what about Kearney, personally – a man who can tick every box in his career except ‘successful NRL head coach’?

“My motivation is the same as when I was playing. Which was essentially why I left this club way back – to win. That doesn’t change.”

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