18 Oct 2022
Welsh coach Kear managing expectations and excitement
Cook Islands coach Tony Iro confident ahead of Kukis opener
By James Toney
Welsh coach John Kear is ready to embrace a very different Rugby League World Cup experience.
The Widnes Vikings head coach led England on home soil at the tournament 22 years ago and is managing expectations as the Dragons prepare to open their Group D campaign against the Cook Islands in Leigh.
And with Papua New Guinea and Tonga ahead, Kear knows the size of the challenge in arguably the toughest group in the competition.
"We've not won a World Cup game proper since 2000," he said.
"We didn’t qualify in 2008. In 2013 and 2017 we qualified but went out in the group stages without winning, so an incremental gain for us, like they talk about in cycling, would be to nail a victory. If we do that we would go away absolutely delighted.
"If you get one victory you know how it is with every sport, the self-belief and confidence starts coursing through your veins and you never know then what’s round the corner.
"That would be some going in this group but there’s no dread in our playing group, there is only excitement and anticipation."
NRL stars Bradman Best and Tyson Frizell were mooted as potential Welsh players, though fullback Caleb Aekins played with Penrith and Canberra before helping Leigh secured promotion to the Super League this season.
Wily campaigner Kear also has plenty of UK-based talent at his disposal, with leading try scorer Rhys Williams - remembered for his sensational solo try for Salford City Reds in the 2020 Challenge Cup Final - a key man.
Kear succeeded Wales's all-time leading points scorer Iestyn Harris in 2014 but the side he coaches here, ranked 17th in the world, is very different from the team that Harris and Jonathan Davies took to the final four as players in 2000 and 1995 respectively.
"From a Wales point of view, it’s a great opportunity for us because we’re very much into developing our own players now, because gone are the days that you could sign a Jiffy [Jonathan Davies] from union because they were amateur," added Kear.
"They’re as professional as rugby league now, so we’ve got to grow our own. We’ve got 12 Welsh-born players as well as lads who’ve come through our system, so we’re pretty proud of where we are with the squad and we just want to make sure we play well."
These teams have met twice before, both times at the World Cup. Their first meeting came back in 2000 when Wales ran out 38-6 victors, but the Cook Islands got some revenge in 2013 with a 28-24 victory in Neath, to date, their only World Cup success.
Cook Islands coach Tony Iro, who made his international debut for New Zealand in the 1988 World Cup final, knows all about English conditions after two seasons with Wigan in the late eighties.
Iro's nephew Kayal, son of Wigan legend Kevin, will take his place in the team after making his NRL debut for Cronulla Sharks this season.
There are two sets of twins and another pair of siblings in Kear's team but Iro is also keeping it in the family.
"We’ve got three sets of brothers in our team and obviously my nephew is with us too," he said.
"Kayal is not quite as fast as his old man but he's very tough and a very good young player, who I think will do a big job for us. Getting his NRL debut underlined what he can do and lots of people will be watching him.
"This is the widest open World Cup ever, I genuinely think about six teams could consider themselves to have a good chance.
"We didn't get the easiest group but we're embracing playing this quality of opposition. We've got a squad that can make the quarter-finals and we'll cause some trouble.
"Wales are a bit of an unknown for us first up but we know plenty about the Tonga and Papua New Guinea boys."
The Rugby League World Cup promises to be the biggest, best and most inclusive event in the sport’s 127-year history with men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams competing in 61 games across 21 venues throughout England. Tickets are available via rlwc2021.com/tickets