Holiday over for edgy Kiwi

Thursday 30 October 2008, 7:45AM
By Mark Geenty

It's a dangerous mix for the Kiwis -- lounging in one of Australia's party capitals and preparing for a World Cup rugby league match everyone expects them to win comfortably.

The weather's warm and their hotel's just a two-minute stroll to the inviting waves and famed stretch of sand known as Surfers Paradise.

But that's where the picture postcard ends. The Kiwis are under pressure to perform at Skilled Park on Saturday night and well aware of the match's banana skin potential against Papua New Guinea's Kumuls.

"They're a passionate team and we need to be passionate as well. We're not expecting anything less than the game they put up against England, maybe even more," Kiwis centre Jerome Ropati said.

"It's their national game and that's what they pride themselves on. They're physically a very capable side and if we're not careful they can really hurt us."

Last weekend's events have added a distinct edge.

The Kiwis took a step backwards from the Centenary test in May with an ordinary 6-30 loss to the Kangaroos, while the Kumuls were a couple of borderline refereeing decisions away from upsetting England who eventually clung on 32-22.

There was also more injury drama for the Kiwis, with dynamic forward Sika Manu yesterday ruled out of the tournament with a fractured eye socket.

As the Kiwis sweated it out at Carrara Stadium, and coaches Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett did the rounds, there was confidence their mediocrity had been farewelled in Sydney.

"As a team we're moving on from that. Definitely, I think there's a lot of self-belief there, quite similar to the Warriors," said Ropati, one of six Warriors in Saturday's team.

"PNG's going to be a good test for us, a really good team to turn things around and try a few things and improve a lot of areas.

"It's no holiday here and we've trained pretty hard. We worked really hard on little basic errors and maintaining control of the ball and especially giving away penalties in their half. We're looking good at this stage."

Australian bookmakers don't agree, having wound out the Kiwis' price from $6.50 to $8 to win the tournament. The dominant Kangaroos shortened to $1.16 and England overtook the Kiwis for second favouritism at $7.

The Kiwis watched the Kumuls' match against England on television, but the team coached by former PNG international and Sydney Rooster Adrian Lam are largely a bunch of unknowns.

Their captain is former NRL player John Wilshere, now playing for English club Salford, while just four other players have NRL experience with Canberra's Neville Costigan the most notable.

The teams have met just once at a World Cup, the Kiwis winning 22-6 at England's Knowsley Road in 1995.

Kearney said preparing for the unpredictable Kumuls was difficult, but the main focus was on righting his team's errors, poor kicking and ill-discipline.

"We've got to expect the unexpected and I thought they came up with some wonderful play against England, shifting the ball out of their red zone and offloading at will," he said.

"Our focus is on making sure we get our game right. We didn't do that against Australia."

So does that suggest less razzle dazzle and a low-risk, conservative approach?

"I wouldn't say conservative. We recognise there's areas in our attack we need to improve. You won't see us pinging the ball from sideline to sideline, I can guarantee you that."