Of the 1001 requirements handed to organisers by the competing teams at the rugby league world cup, the extra chair in the press conference room requested by the Kiwis is perhaps the most revealing.
Teams are mandated to send their coach and a player – usually the captain – to post match press conferences. Offering up more than the minimum requirement is not exactly common place.
The mystery of why the Kiwis were intent on delivering 33 per cent more than they absolutely had to was solved on Saturday night when assistant coach Brain Smith sauntered into the room alongside David Kidwell and Adam Blair.
Smith’s presence said plenty. So did his lips.
“No,” said the veteran Aussie coach when asked if the Kiwis would accept a higher error rate as a consequence of a more expansive game plan.
Elaborating, Smith indicated the Kiwis felt not only that they could move the ball around enough to threaten the defences of their most challenging opponents, but that they must. And they must do so with precision. There was no other route to success at the tournament.
Given the Kiwis’ lack of penetration in five successive defeats to the Kangaroos (they have scored just 34 points at an average of 6.2 per match over that span), there’s nothing remarkable in Smith’s assessment. What is remarkable is that he was the one offering it. Such statements typically come from the head coach.
It’s no surprise Smith’s input is central to the Kiwis’ plans. What is surprising is that they are so open about it.
In fairness to Kidwell, he has long indicated the new “Kiwi Way” was coming, and promised that it would be expansive. So it would be stretching it to insinuate that Smith – a highly-analytical, technically-masterful veteran coach – was in fact the architect of the game plan that crushed a quality Samoan side 38-8 in Saturday night’s opening match.
On the other hand, Smith – who was appointed as a ‘technical adviser’ in August – isn’t exactly taking a backward seat.
Given Smith is closing in on 700 games as a head coach in a career spanning four decades, while head coach David Kidwell is a comparative babe in the woods, it’s no surprise Smith’s input is central to the Kiwis’ plans. What is surprising is that they are so open about it.
The veteran hand assisting the promising (often struggling) novice is a familiar coaching set-up in Kiwi league. It worked successfully with Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett with the Kiwis, and also with Ivan Cleary and John Hart at the Warriors.
Typically, though, the veteran operates in the shadows, emerging only for rare public appearances in which they understate their role, defer on questions of import and heap praise upon the man they are propping up.
The fact that the Kiwis have eschewed this approach and are comfortable having Smith sit quite literally at Kidwell’s right hand while offering his own views on matters of state is a hugely positive sign. Egos have clearly been checked at the door.
The approach isn’t without risks; it’s unlikely to go unnoticed if the coaches contradict each other in public. It doesn’t take much for a minor difference of opinion to turn into a public spat. But for now, at least, Kidwell and Smith are very much singing from the same hymn sheet.
Both men have a lot to gain. While Kidwell’s career can best be described as still suffering complications following a difficult and protracted birth, Smith’s is at the opposite end of the life cycle.
If the Kiwis can somehow find a way to emulate the miracle of 2008, Kidwell will have engineered one of the greatest reversals in fortune the game has witnessed.
For Smith, a Kiwis victory would go some way to balancing a ledger that has seen him coach five different clubs to six major finals, only for every big occasion to end in defeat.
If the Kiwis do make the world cup final on December 2 in Brisbane, there will most certainly be a third chair in the room at the post match press conference.