Kiwis planned victory over Kangaroos in Brisbane hotel
THE seeds of the Kiwis' remarkable victory on Sunday were sown on the ninth floor of their inner city Brisbane hotel.
Sitting in their room each day, Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran plotted the downfall of the Kangaroos. Though both halves came into camp with plenty of outside pressure - there were questions over Johnson's form, and doubts over Foran's fitness - the two playmakers were completely focused.
"We had to take the next step," said Johnson. "[Last year] was great but we knew it wouldn't mean as much unless we performed again [on Sunday]."
MORE RUGBY LEAGUE:
Foran and Johnson have now played more tests in tandem than any other Kiwis halves pairing and have a strong bond. They spent hours together, often discussing the upcoming match.
"We don't come into camp unless we room together," laughed Johnson. "We get on well but also feed off each other. He's a really competitive person so he was in my ear the whole week, saying 'We need to get these guys,' all that kind of stuff."
It was a happy group. Down the hall Ben Matulino and Jesse Bromwich renewed acquaintances, while the two young guns, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Dallin Watene-Zelzniak regularly took the honours for the messiest room.
Kodi Nikorima was paired with his "idol" Issac Luke while Manu Vatuvei's legendary laugh echoed down the corridor from the room he shared with Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
On another floor, coach Stephen Kearney set up base for the week. He met with his leadership group (which includes Simon Mannering, Foran, Thomas Leuluai, Bromwich and Luke) early on to set the agenda for the week, before team meetings and training started the next day.
It's been a pivotal 12 months for Kearney. After the painful 2013 World Cup defeat, he knew things had to change.
"We had a set of values - like the Kiwis have always had - but to be fair we weren't living them 100 per cent," said Kearney. "That's everyone, me included. Every team, business, company has core values but if you ain't living them they don't mean a lot. We had to start living the values rather than just talking about them."
Steps were made - on and off the field - in last year's Anzac test, before big gains at the Four Nations. Now they needed another level.
"We knew Australia would come back strongly," said Kearney. "We had to be ready for that. But we didn't need to change too much from the Four Nations; it was about getting the confidence and combinations back."
This team also has a new outlook towards the Kangaroos; they respect them, but - similar to Martin Crowe's approach in the 1992 Cricket World Cup - try to de-mystify them.
"They are just a whole lot of blank jumpers for us," said Martin Taupau. "We know they are great players but we don't want to think about them. We didn't want to invest any energy on the Australian team. We focused on ourselves and what we needed to achieve on the field."
The culture, the "brotherhood", was returning fast. The team enjoyed a family dinner, with former Kiwis Sam Panapa, David Solomona and Quentin Pongia and later in the week had a memorable shared meal with the Junior Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns.
Friday's postponement threw a spanner in the works, as NZRL staff had to rebook 80 flights and source accommodation, meals, transport and supplies. It was a strange situation for the players.
"I woke up on Saturday and at first it felt like a dream," said Mannering. "Then it was, right, now we have to get ready again."
The unprecedented delay was a test of mental strength, which many thought might favour the experienced Kangaroo's team. But assistant coach David Kidwell had no doubts.
Catching up with some friends from New Zealand, one of them asked if the Kiwis, significant outsiders on the Australian TAB, were worth a wager. "Get on us" was his succinct reply. "The boys are buzzing, they're up for this." And so it proved.