THEY won’t start favourites for the rugby league World Cup, but New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney claims the current crop is more advanced than the group which claimed the 2008 title.
The Kiwis were rank outsiders before toppling Australia 34-20 in the final in Brisbane five years ago to lift the trophy for the first time.
“No one gave us a hope in hell in 2008 and I’m hoping they do the same thing this year,” Kearney said.
“The group we’ve picked is, I think, a lot further ahead than the group we had in 2008.”
The Kiwis’ 24-man squad for their title defence in Europe features one notable absentee in cross-code star Sonny Bill Williams, who has been tipped for a return to rugby union with the Chiefs.
The dual international and part-time boxer said after helping the Sydney Roosters to the NRL premiership on Sunday that he would take a couple of weeks to decide his footballing future.
Kearney, who spoke to Williams on Monday, said the second-rower was unavailable “due to other commitments”.
“What they are, at this stage we would all like to know,” he said.
“I’m sure we’ll all hear about that after the next two to three weeks.”
While Williams’ ball-playing ability would have been a big asset to the Kiwis, he was also absent from the 2008 tournament, having quit Canterbury earlier that year to switch to rugby in France.
Newcastle back-rower Jeremy Smith and Roosters centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall were two other players not considered for selection.
Smith, who played in the 2008 final, was unavailable for family reasons, while Kenny-Dowall is to undergo surgery after playing most of the grand final with a broken jaw.
Kearney described Smith’s form during the NRL playoffs, when the Knights reached the preliminary final, as outstanding.
“It’s hard to replace someone like that,” he said.
“But with the guys we’ve got in this group, I think he won’t be missed as much as he would have two years ago.”
The squad contains two uncapped players, both from the Roosters – 20-year-old Dally M winger of the year Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and prop Sam Moa.
There are seven survivors from the 2008 cup campaign, including five who played in the final – present skipper Simon Mannering, back-rower Greg Eastwood, winger Manu Vatuvei and hookers Thomas Leuluai and Issac Luke.
The two others are outside backs Krisnan Inu and Jason Nightingale.
The Kiwis will gather in Sydney on Saturday before flying out for Britain.
They have a warm-up fixture against the Cook Islands in Liverpool on October 21 (AEDT), before beginning their cup defence against Samoa in Warrington seven days later.
Kiwis: Jesse Bromwich (Melbourne), Greg Eastwood (Canterbury), Kieran Foran (Manly, vice-captain), Alex Glenn (Brisbane), Bryson Goodwin (South Sydney), Tohu Harris (Melbourne), Joss Hoffman (Brisbane), Krisnan Inu (Canterbury), Shaun Johnson (Warriors), Sam Kasiano (Canterbury), Thomas Leuluai (Warriors), Kevin Locke (Warriors), Issac Luke (South Sydney), Simon Mannering (Warriors, captain), Ben Matulino (Warriors), Sam Moa (Sydney Roosters), Jason Nightingale (St George Illawarra), Frank-Paul Nu’uausala (Sydney Roosters), Frank Pritchard (Canterbury), Elijah Taylor (Warriors), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Sydney Roosters), Manu Vatuvei (Warriors), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Sydney Roosters), Dean Whare (Penrith).