Kearney relishing return to Hull with his Kiwis

Stephen Kearney. Photo: Varley Picture Agency
Stephen Kearney. Photo: Varley Picture Agency
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He may have only been there a matter of 10 months but Stephen Kearney’s legacy at Hull FC is a long-lasting one.

The formidable Kiwi second-row was one of the finest players of his generation when he arrived at the end of 2004.

Any fears he was in East Yorkshire solely for a handsome pay-day as he contemplated the final season of his illustrious career were quickly eased by a series of commanding displays which underlined his true quality.

By the time he left the following year, Kearney had fully ingratiated himself with the Black and White faithful having played a pivotal part in their 2005 Challenge Cup final success – they have not won anything since – and used his immense experience to help develop a host of their budding forwards.

Even the memory of a red card in his final game during the 71-0 play-off humiliation at Bradford cannot stain his undoubted impact.

All of which means there will be mixed emotions for Hull fans in the crowd tomorrow evening when Kearney, now 39 but looking as immaculate as he did during his pomp with Melbourne Storm, returns to the KC Stadium in charge of a New Zealand side bidding to end England’s hopes of reaching the Gillette Four Nations final.

“I know all about how passionate the Hull people are when it comes to rugby league,” he told the Yorkshire Post.

“The atmosphere will be something else when we kick off.

“I played in front of some big crowds at the KC during my year at the club and they were always very good at making noise.

“We had 10,000 people waiting to welcome us back when we won the cup in 2005 and the atmosphere that day was electric.

“I have some very fond memories of my time there, that obviously being the highlight – I saw how much joy it brought to that part of the city.

“But I’m with New Zealand now and facing a huge challenge; we haven’t won too many battles over here with the English on English soil.”

That is something in the hosts’ favour.

Kearney is not only referring to the 2009 Four Nations loss at Huddersfield which denied them a place in the final but also the disastrous 2007 tour which ended in 3-0 series whitewash and cost Gary Kemble his job.

It can also be traced back further to 1993 when, at 21 and the youngest captain in Kiwi history, Kearney witnessed another three-Test loss.

It is hard not to fancy them tomorrow though given their recent propensity to improve towards the latter end of tournaments.

The reigning world champions – Kearney led them to that shock 2008 win during his first year in charge – showed signs of their innate class in an opening defeat to Australia a fortnight ago and shone sporadically in defeating Wales at Wembley.

While Australia await the victors in next week’s final, the losers tomorrow go home and Kearney admitted: “It’ll take an 80-minute performance.

“That’s something we’re very mindful of. England will be really desperate also and that is the challenge for us.

“For 25 minutes we really competed against Australia and got ourselves back in the game and we did the same last week but now we must sustain it against England for the entirety.”

Thomas Leuluai will undoubtedly be crucial to their hopes, the Wigan half-back who will go ahead of father and Hull legend James when he makes his 30th Test appearance tomorrow.

“He reminded his dad of that earlier this week,” said Kearney, who notched up 45 Tests himself, “but his dad reminded him of how many tries he’d scored too.

“We’ve got a few people who have pulled up with injuries and Sammy McKendry won’t be available so we’re going to leave our selection as late as possible.

“We’re all aware there is no next week if we lose so we’re preparing accordingly.”

Kearney has already met up with some of his former Hull colleagues including Kirk Yeaman and Garreth Carvell from the England ranks and Wales’ Peter Lupton.

“It was wonderful to see them all and catch up again,” he said, after last week’s Wembley double-header.

“It reminded me of what a pleasing experience it all was with Hull, for me and my family.

“Seeing young guys like Kirk and the Horne brothers, Hull lads, winning that cup was great and I know all my experiences at Hull played a part in the repertoire I’ve accumulated over the course of time.

“They’re not there now, but I still keep in contact with Rich Agar and Kath (Hetherington) and I do have a soft spot for the club, so I am looking forward to going back to the KC, just not to play England.

“I’ve watched Kirk and Gaz fairly closely over the last few years and seen their careers develop but it will be different circumstances come Saturday night.”