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Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney hopes to avoid repeat of 1995 Wilderspool World Cup match
RETURNING to Warrington as boss of New Zealand for their World Cup opener against Samoa in Warrington on Sunday is bringing back memories of a scare for Stephen Kearney.
It has been almost two decades since he played for his country in a World Cup game in Warrington but there is little doubt that the town made a lasting impression on the NRL and Challenge Cup winner.
The then 23-year-old was a member of the New Zealand squad that lined up against emerging international side Tonga on October 8, 1995, at Wilderspool Stadium — a game in which everyone expected the Kiwis to win comfortably.
But the Wilderspool crowd rallied in favour of the unknown Tongans and inspired by the town’s superb support they went close to producing one of the biggest upsets in the international game, a drop-goal in the final minutes sneaking New Zealand over the line 25-24.
“I remember we just won and I remember the crowd were well and truly on Tonga’s side that game,” said the former Hull FC back rower, who is looking to guide his side to a defence of the World Cup trophy they won in Australia four years ago.
“They were rooting for the underdog that day and I have got no doubt that support lifted Tonga and that is a danger for us when we face Samoa this weekend.”
The danger is very real.
Unlike that Tongan side in 1995, Samoa’s current World Cup squad is littered with stars from Australia’s NRL competition and Super League.
They may have lost comfortably to England’s second string at Salford at the weekend, but Samoa’s rivalry with New Zealand and the support they will likely receive from the town they have temporarily called home is likely to propel them to new heights against the cup holders.
And the upsets in the warm-up games – USA winning in France and Italy defeating England – have also made Kearney wary of complacency at The Halliwell Jones Stadium.
“I am well aware that Samoa will pose exactly the same threat as Tonga did that day, so we have to ensure that the way we prepare is second to none,” he said.
“With the quality of players in the tournament I have no doubt there are going to be some upsets.
“I am hoping they won’t be against New Zealand, but I am looking at the talent in the Samoan, Tongan, Italian teams and there is a great deal of talent on show there.”
But most teams would love to have the quality of player that Kearney has at his disposal, with NRL megastar Sonny Bill Williams lining up alongside a plethora of other big names from the Australian competition.
And though they are second favourites to lift the trophy for a second successive time, the Kiwis boss is focused firmly on the task ahead of his side in Warrington.
“I think over the past few days we have settled into the English conditions and got over our jet-lag,” he said.
“If the pressure is on us, we are not feeling it.
“We are just mindful of what we are up against. We are not thinking about six weeks’ time, we are thinking about this week and how we prepare for that.”
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