Kiwis wary of growing power base
They are the No.1-ranked rugby league nation on the planet but Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney says his team has had enough close calls to know their claim to the crown is only ever a tenuous one.
As one of the co-hosts of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup next year New Zealand will carry the expectations of a nation who see precious little international rugby league but will be flooded with six games over the five weeks of the tournament.
The Kiwis have arguably drawn the toughest pool of the top-tier nations with pool games against Samoa, Scotland and Tonga who are ranked fourth, ninth and 15th respectively in the latest Rugby League International Federation rankings.
The Kiwis qualified for the final of the 2013 World Cup courtesy of a last-minute Shaun Johnson try against England in the semi-final and needed a Shaun Kenny-Dowall try five minutes from full-time to get the better of Samoa in the 2014 Four Nations tournament.
A depleted Kiwis squad lost the three-Test series against England last year 2-1 and Kearney says the development of other international teams will push New Zealand to elevate their game even further.
"You just have to look at that [Pacific] Test match from the last two years and in the 2014 Four Nations it was a real challenge for us," Kearney said of the emergence of both Samoa and Tonga in recent years.
"Quite easily [Samoa] could have [beaten us]. If you look at their first game here against England they could well have got England too.
"What that leads to is that they're getting better and better and it will be a real challenge for us.
"We were two minutes from not making the final in 2013 and England beat us in a Test series last year and were very unlucky against Australia in Melbourne in the Four Nations.
"So for me, England, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, everyone's getting better. That raises the level and needing to work even harder."
Jesse Bromwich captained the Kiwis for the first time in the mid-year Test in Newcastle and has also paid close attention to the development of the Pacific Island teams in particular.
Papua New Guinea showed they have made significant strides since 2013 with a win over Fiji in May and Bromwich acknowledges that the Kiwis were lucky to get away with their 14-12 win over Samoa in Whangarei two years ago.
"It was definitely a wake-up call," Bromwich said.
"We didn't take them lightly but they definitely turned up to play and really made a game of it.
"We were lucky to get away with that win. We scored in the last six minutes or so and just scraped home and after the game we knew that if we do that again they're going to beat us.
"I definitely think that the smaller nations are getting stronger. You just look at the games that they played in the middle of the year, Tonga and Samoa are two really strong nations at the moment and you can even throw Fiji and PNG in there as well.
"Australia and New Zealand used to be the two main teams but these days anyone can win it."
New Zealand have the prospect of playing every game of the 2017 World Cup up until the final in their homeland but the crowd favourite may not be weighted overwhelmingly the way of the Kiwis.
In the close call against Samoa in 2014 the majority of the crowd in Whangarei were cheering for an upset and Bromwich admits any home ground advantage in Auckland, Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington may not be as one-sided as they would hope.
"We were in New Zealand but it definitely felt like the crowd was going for Samoa," Bromwich recalled.
"That just shows how many Samoans live in New Zealand and it's not a home ground advantage for us.
"It's going to be good for New Zealand to have Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Scotland in the same pool."
Kearney on the other hand is hopeful that the sprinkling of players with Samoan and Tongan heritage within the Kiwis team will help to tip the ledger the way of New Zealand.
"In Auckland there is a pretty big Pacific Island community but we'll have players of both Samoan and Tongan heritage who will be playing for New Zealand so hopefully we can swing a few of the Tongans and Samoans on our side," Kearney said.
"I reckon it will be pretty even but I'd like to think they will lean our way.
"What that stands for is that it will be a wonderful occasion, our opening game at Mt Smart against Samoa, and it will be no different down in Hamilton [against Tonga].
"I'm sure the Tongan community will get behind their team and support them down in Hamilton too."