Legends and families cultivate Kiwi culture

The fourth Four Nations tournament kicks off in Brisbane on Saturday, a month-long campaign that – for the first time, with or without the hosts – will culminate in a final in New Zealand. 

But that doesn't mean these Kiwis won't have started there. 

Based in Brisbane for the tournament-opener against Australia this week, coach Stephen Kearney set up a home away from home for his 24-man squad, bringing in Test greats Clinton Toopi and Quentin Pongia to join camp mid-week. 

First they gathered the players and their families for a feast on Tuesday night, before the legendary duo recovered enough to join the team for an opposed session the following day. And by the looks of things, the pair could have easily sent some Kangaroos back to Dream World this weekend. 

"The way he whacked Kieran Foran today, I was getting a bit worried," cracked Kearney. "But nah, not this time around."

You see, this wasn't just going to be a lesson on how best to use your shoulders. Kearney could've just pulled out his old tapes to teach them that. 

But the presence of two of New Zealand's most decorated players in camp would make an impact not unlike NSW or Queensland teams calling on past champions like Andrew Johns or Wally Lewis to stir pride in their jersey. 

"It was just a relaxed atmosphere. They opened it up for ex-players to bring their families and wives and to be honest with you – no disrespect to any other camps I've been on in the past – but I never had that," Toopi said. 

"So this was a special thing to see and be a part of. Apparently it's a special tradition now within the Kiwis camps. Our families are a big part of the journey and to have them come along and share with everyone else's families is such a special thing. 

"That's something we've always had, but they're just taking it to another level with Kearney and his coaching staff."

Added Greg Eastwood: "Once you come in, you're family and you feel like it's a brother you never knew you had. I guess a lot of teams can't get that straight away like we do, sitting around a kava bowl and having a bit of a laugh and some songs, it's good.

"It's hard to explain. Being a senior you want to bring the young guy in and make them feel comfortable; you don't want anyone feeling left out of the team. It's all about bringing these young kids into the team and making them feel welcome because we're going to have to rely on them on the field so it all starts when they come into camp."

Pongia had often just played the ball when Kiwi icon Stacey Jones had conned multiple Kangaroos into arm grabs, while Toopi was part of a side that finally put up a fend bigger and stronger than any in Sonny Bill Williams' lifetime. 

These were stories, lessons in international football, that can't be taught on a training paddock. 

"We did have a theme when we played them, when we beat Australia for the first time in 15 years or whatever. It was: Bully the bully," Toopi continued. 

"Because they were known to be the bullies, and we wanted to stay in the game longer. Because too often we get hyped for the first 10, 15 minutes after the haka, and we couldn't re-gather ourselves back. 

"Where Australia are still turned on and focused in the game, we're still in that emotion from the start – there's a lot of energy burnt there. That side of things, we were able to change that focus and we put that into better useful places rather than going out there and emotionally trying to bash and bash. It's a smart man's game, believe it or not."

Kearney said it was important to create an environment – or a brotherhood, rather – that recognises their past as a rugby league nation, particularly for the younger players who grew up away from home. 

"It's a common bond that they all have and way back when I was lucky enough to play for New Zealand there was that there," he said. 

"I think it's changed a bit now that you've got young guys who have been brought up in Australia and come through Australian systems, you see them come into camp and how they lap up the cultural side of it, they really take to it. 

"They just have a real closeness and the key for us is to use that and combine that with giving a good performance. That's the important part, using that energy to power our performance."

These Kiwi players will take a slice of home with them, no matter where they're playing in the world.