How Kearney plans to unlock Warriors magic
You know that rugby league chestnut? The old "we’re just worried about this week"? Well, that applies to most teams - just don’t include the New Zealand Warriors in that category.
For so long, regardless of what happened "this week", of far greater concern to the Warriors is what they would dish out the "next week".
History suggests that, despite the events that unfolded more than 5000km away in their first up victory against the South Sydney Rabbitohs in Perth, what the Warriors produce against the Gold Coast Titans at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday remains a mystery.
"We all know and all recognise that if you have the talent, but the attitude and appetite to work hard and maximise that talent – if you don’t have that, then the reality is it’s wasted talent," Stephen Kearney told NRL.com.
Wasted talent. Unfortunately, the Warriors have been a breeding ground of just that over the past decade.
"It’s one thing having the talent but it’s another thing recognising that it needs other bits to go with that talent," Kearney said.
Yeah, good luck.
Go ask Andrew McFadden, Matthew Elliott and Brian McClennan about the "other bits".
Only two coaches have ever found a top job at another NRL club after a stint at the Warriors. Daniel Anderson and Ivan Cleary – the two coaches that led the club to their only two grand final appearances in 2002 and 2011 respectively.
Most years, there is so much hype around the Warriors to start the season. And generally, they fail to come close.
This year, expectation was at an all-time low. Some suggesting they were even wooden spoon bound.
But 80 minutes into a 25-round season, some are wondering whether Kearney is the man that has finally discovered the "other bits" required to turn the club into the powerhouse it should be.
Whether it’s deliberate or just coincidence, there’s no denying the common link between the key signings in the off-season.
Blake Green, Adam Blair and Tohu Harris – all who, at some points in their respective careers, have come through the Melbourne Storm system and culture of what seems like eternal success.
Then there’s the new head of high performance, Alex Corvo, the man credited for transforming a bunch of footballers into a group of athletes.
They are all winners. Guys who know how to get the job done.
"Sometimes you just can’t come in and shape the team how you like it if players have existing contracts," Kearney said.
"Tohu Harris, Adam Blair … Blake Green has been fantastic. Blake will assist. That’s one part of the puzzle. Tohu Harris has a great deal of experience for a youngish guy and has a real smart footy head on his shoulders. I have no doubt the work Alex Corvo has been doing with the group will help.
"The 12 months that some of these guys spent in a tough year during a challenging time – that will help. I’m not relying on Greeny to be the magic fix. There are a number of things that need to happen to fix things."
This is where Shaun Johnson comes into the story. He has been the poster boy at the Warriors since his breakout year in 2011. A superstar. A game breaker.
By this stage of his development, some would argue he should be far more than just a game-breaker. He should be a match-winner. That’s where the "other bits" come back into the equation.
"Shaun is an indication of what I’m talking about in regards to talent, potential and consistency," Kearney said.
"He’d be the first to put his hand up. But it’s not placing all the responsibility at Shaun’s feet. It’s a collective. The whole club needs to take some responsibility for that also. The point you’re making is a great example of what we’re talking about in terms of maximising that talent every week in the hardest competition in the world.
"It comes with the reputation that he’s built and the expectation that he has. No doubt. But the point I want to make is that I don’t have that expectation of Shaun. I need him to do his job. Sometimes that’s putting a ball into the pocket and getting down on a kick chase.
"It’s not every game that he’s going to come up with the magic play that will pull us out of trouble or win us the game. He’s got the ability to do that. I just need Shaun to do his job. That’s all I expect him to do."
As a coach, Kearney is on a similar journey as to the football club he now leads.
He’s been considered a talented mentor for some time, having assisted at the Storm and Brisbane Broncos.
He’s also had success with the Kiwis, but despite showing patches of potential as a coach, his first stint in the Telstra Premiership at the Parramatta Eels raised question marks over his ability.
Kearney can now openly admit he was never ready for the baptism of fire that was the political beast of Parramatta.
He says there were times after being punted by the Eels where he vowed never to try his hand as an NRL head coach.
"But you’re just feeling sorry for yourself to be fair," he said. "In my heart, I love helping … to me that’s why you do it."
The lessons, albeit almost career ending, are now driving him in his second coming as a top-line rugby league coach, helping the club that arguably needs it more than anyone else.
It’s why when Issac Luke wasn’t playing to his potential last year, Kearney didn’t hesitate dropping him to the bench.
"It wasn’t a tough decision," he said.
"The reality is he was making the decision for me. The performance from Issac wasn’t good enough."
But once upon a time, he wasn’t in a position to make those sorts of decisions as a coach such was the nature of the first job he accepted.
"I freely admit that I wasn’t ready for that job at that particular time," Kearney said of the Eels role.
"It was a pretty challenging environment. I thought I had experience in having been at Melbourne. The reality was I’d been part of an organisation that you just needed to squirt some oil on the wheels every now and then. It ran pretty smoothly with some pretty handy operators there.
"The complexities of Parramatta and everything that went on there, and I’m talking everything, was probably too much for me to handle … not to mention there was a playing list there … I just knew I wasn’t ready for that particular job. It taught me a lot about myself and it taught me a lot about other people around you."
Kearney is now into his second season in Auckland. He’s had 12 months to stamp his authority and make significant changes to the roster. It’s his football team.
On paper, it’s a top-eight team. Top four, perhaps. But on paper they’ve been premiers in the eyes of some for years.
"It’s getting them to understand that ‘yeah, we do have some talent here’, but making sure we’re maximising that every time we play and every time we train so we do build that consistency in performance," Kearney said.
"To me, I’m confident that if we get close to our potential and pay close to our capabilities consistently every week, then we give ourselves a real good chance of playing finals footy."
It hasn't been done since 2011. But for the mean time, let’s see what "next week" brings.