Kiwis arrive with licence to run free

New Zealand are determined to leave a lasting impression, says Dave Hadfield

Thursday 30 January 2014 04:58
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The good news for anybody planning to watch the touring New Zealanders over the next month or so is that Gary Freeman, their coach, does not plan to rein back any of their natural instincts. The Kiwis arrived for their three-Test tour this week still aglow from the way they had played against Australia the previous weekend. It was a dazzling exhibition of expansive offloading and compulsive attack.

One small snag; they lost – just as half of them had done playing for the New Zealand Warriors in the Australian Grand Final a week earlier.

The Great Britain coach, David Waite, is among those who would scale down the adventure if he was in charge, but Freeman rejects that philosophy. "They're great attack-ing players," he says of his squad. "We know there's certain areas we've got to address, but they can attack whenever they want to.

"Everybody went away from the Test in Wellington saying what a great game it had been, and we want to entertain while we're over here as well."

Freeman, who first came to Britain as a teenager almost 20 years ago to play for the short-lived Kent Invicta and later for Castleford, has the players with whom to fulfil that ambition. Rugby League in New Zealand is currently on a high, largely fuelled by the heroics of the Warriors in the National Rugby League, and the young talent at his disposal reflects that.

Unlike previous tours, few of this squad are known to the British crowd through club rugby here, but the likes of Ali Lauiti'iti are set to become household names, even where enthusiasts aren't too sure of the pronunciation.

Lauiti'iti could well be the player who sums up the New Zealand approach to this tour. A physically imposing second-rower, his special gift is being able to get the ball away in the least promising of circumstances. All his fellow forwards do the same and, because Stacey Jones and Richard Swain follow them around expecting it, it works.

Jones is the other key. Over the last few years, those who have watched him with the Kiwis and the Warriors have seen him develop from a painfully shy young man to the assured elder statesman of both sides. With Australia's Andrew Johns injured at the moment, he is also the best scrum-half playing the game.

Following the loss of Nathan Cayless, Jones has been elevated to captain, which is merely a recognition of his natural leadership role. When the Kiwis have got their four warm-up matches – a nicely balanced little itinerary in themselves – out of the way, the opportunity to see him and Sean Long in direct opposition in the three Tests should be a treat. Given that New Zealand took Australia so close a week ago and that Great Britain were thrashed 64-10 in Sydney in July, the Kiwis have to start as favourites. However, that is something that Freeman is keen to play down.

"I don't think that long flight did your guys any favours," he says. "I think it will be a totally different Great Britain side that plays us. Adrian Morley, for instance, had a great season in Australia."

Morley is, indeed, an important part of Waite's strategy. The former Leeds forward showed in his Grand Final with the Sydney Roosters the relish with which he will take on the giant Kiwi pack and Great Britain will use him as their impact player, both at prop and second-row.

It will take more than that, of course. It will take Keiron Cunningham outshining Swain at dummy-half, Long staying fit and keeping Jones busy, and the team as a whole getting among the Kiwis and disrupting their offloads. It may or may not work, but it will not be dull.

The Kiwis start their tour at Hull on Tuesday night, with what is sure to be an emotionally charged match that will mark the closure of The Boulevard before the club move to a new ground nearby. It is one of the better- thought-out opening fixtures on any tour to this country, and should be the beginning of a memorable month.

ITINERARY: 22 October: v Hull. 25 October: v Grand Final winners. 30 October: v England A (Brentford). 3 November: v Wales (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff). 9 November: v Great Britain (Blackburn). 16 November: v Great Britain (Huddersfield). 23 November: v Great Britain (Wigan).

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