Stephen Kearney – Warrior #11
Stephen Kearney was one of several high-profile New Zealand Test players to return from Australian clubs for the Auckland Warriors’ 1995 premiership entry and was one of the troubled outfits standout performers during their first four campaigns.
Western Suburbs (1992-94): 46 games – 6 tries (24 points)
Warriors (1995-98): 79 games – 11 tries (44 points)
Melbourne (1999-2004): 139 games – 20 tries (80 points)
PREMIERSHIP TOTAL: 264 games – 37 tries (148 points)
New Zealand (1993-2004): 45 Tests – 9 tries (36 points)
Born in Paraparaumu, Kearney represented Wellington while playing for the Randwick club in 1991-92 and captained the Junior Kiwis. As a 20-year-old he departed for Sydney to join Western Suburbs in 1992 and made his first grade debut late in the regular season, before starring in the Magpies’ Presidents Cup Grand Final defeat of St George.
A tall, skilful and intimidating backrower, Kearney became a permanent first grader in 1993 and made his Test debut in the Kiwis’ third Test loss to Australia at Lang Park. He was subsequently chosen to tour Great Britain and France with the Kiwis at the end of the season and was sensationally elevated to the Test captaincy after coach Howie Tamati reacted to dismal losses in the first two Tests against Great Britain by dropping veteran skipper Gary Freeman and a host of established stars.
At 21 years and 148 days, Kearney became New Zealand’s youngest Test captain in the 29-12 loss in the third encounter, but he was injured on the French leg of the tour when a hotel balcony collapsed. He recovered to produce another fine season for Wests in 1994, announcing in May his impending return to New Zealand on a two-year contract with the Warriors.
A consistent performer during Auckland’s maiden season, Kearney was regularly utilised as a prop by coach John Monie in the second half of the 1995 season, while he was a formidable presence in the second-row throughout New Zealand’s busy seven-Test schedule.
Kearney was a standout choice as the Warriors’ Player of the Year in 1996, drawing comparisons with Kiwi backrow greats of the 1980s, Mark Graham and Hugh McGahan. His ability to consistently trouble the defensive line as a ball-runner and with his tremendous offloading skills, combined with rugged defence, were features of the club’s ultimately disappointing campaign.
Kearney became the Warriors’ first Test captain in the inaugural Anzac Test against the Super League Australian side in 1997, and led Auckland in eight games while regular skipper Matthew Ridge was sidelined with injury. Kearney’s run of 16 consecutive Tests was broken by a controversial three-match suspension on a striking charge incurred in a win over Melbourne early in the 1998 NRL season, ruling him out of the Anzac Test.
He left Auckland at the end of 1998 after captaining the club in 19 of his 79 appearances, with the announcement he was joining the Storm coming less than two months after the Graham Lowe-led consortium purchased the Warriors.
It proved a fruitful move for Kearney, who was a vital component of Melbourne’s euphoric 1999 premiership triumph. A five-match dangerous throw suspension ruled him out of the Anzac Test again earlier in the season, but he was magnificent during the post-season Tri-Nations tournament in which the Kiwis came within an ace of defeating Australia in the final.
Kearney’s judiciary problems peaked in 2000 when he was rubbed out for eight weeks for a spear tackle on former Test teammate and Wests Tigers captain Jarrod McCracken – an incident that resulted in McCracken taking legal action against Kearney. The 191cm second-rower was an engine-room mainstay for the Storm throughout the early-2000s, eventually departing the NRL at the end of 2004 after 264 first grade appearances – a record for a non-Australian player at the time (since beaten by Ruben Wiki).
He made his 45th and final Test appearance in the Kiwis’ mid-season Test loss to Australia in 2004, just one match shy of Gary Freeman’s then-record New Zealand total. Kearney finished his career with a one-season stint for Super League club Hull, celebrating in the club’s Challenge Cup final success.
Kearney returned to Melbourne as an assistant to coach Craig Bellamy and quickly earned a reputation as a budding NRL mentor, before taking over the New Zealand Test post from Gary Kemble in 2008. With renowned Brisbane ‘supercoach’ Wayne Bennett onboard as an advisor, Kearney – at only 36 years of age – guided the Kiwis to a stunning 34-20 upset of the Kangaroos in the 2008 World Cup final, New Zealand’s maiden World Cup triumph and the first time Australia had failed to win the tournament since 1972.
After another Suncorp Stadium boilover in charge of the Kiwis in the 2010 Four Nations final, Kearney replaced Daniel Anderson as coach of Parramatta on a three-year deal from 2011. But the Eels narrowly avoided the wooden spoon in his first season at the club, while the Kiwis failed to make the final of the England-based Four Nations tournament.
Kearney came under intense scrutiny during Parramatta’s calamitous 2012 NRL campaign, but he maintained a calm and forthright public demeanour as the club lurched from one disaster to the next on and off the field. He eventually stood down from his first grade post with six rounds of the 2012 season remaining after recording just 10 wins in 42 games.
But Kearney set about resurrecting his coaching reputation by joining the Broncos’ staff as an assistant – firstly under Anthony Griffin from 2013, then being retained as Bennett returned to the club in 2015. Meanwhile, after an crushing loss to Australia in the 2013 World Cup final, Kearney’s Kiwis claimed another Four Nations title 12 months later with two wins over the Kangaroos and a historic Anzac Test triumph in 2015.
‘Mooks’, as he is affectionately known to his players, stepped down from the national post after eight years and a record 40 Tests in charge in late-2016 after being installed as the Warriors’ new head coach, replacing Andrew McFadden, who Kearney opted to keep on his staff.
In a trying initial season back at the Auckland-based club, the Warriors finished with just seven wins and ended the 2017 season on a nine-match losing streak but Kearney’s influence attracted the signatures of Kiwi internationals Tohu Harris, Adam Blair, Gerard Beale and Peta Hiku for 2018, and he enjoyed belated NRL head-coaching success during the club’s unprecedented early-season charge.