Kiwis captain Jesse Bromwich is hoping New Zealand’s star-studded World Cup side can help put rugby league back on the map in his homeland after two years ravaged by the COVID 19 pandemic.
The New Zealand rugby league community did it incredibly tough in 2020 and '21 as lockdowns played havoc with grassroots competitions and the nation’s only NRL team was relocated to Australia for nearly three years.
Taking the field in June at Mt Smart Stadium for the 30th Test of his decorated career, Bromwich was stunned to be confronted by a sea of red supporting Tonga rather than the black and white of New Zealand.
“The New Zealand I remember was a very strong rugby league nation and going back there I’ve noticed the game has taken a huge hit,” Bromwich told the media at the World Cup launch in England.
“To have the Tongans sell out Mt Smart and not the Kiwis was a bit of a sign of what is going on, so I look forward to representing everyone back home as best we can.
“We understand rugby league has taken a massive hit back home and we’re over here representing all of them and our families as well so hopefully, this competition can be a bit of a springboard for rugby league back home.”
Match Highlights: Kiwis v Mate Ma’a Tonga
Bromwich, who made his Test debut a decade ago against Australia in the 2012 Anzac Test, has complete faith in coach Michael Maguire's ability to bring the absolute best out in the Kiwis.
With 14 years having passed since the nation's lone World Cup success, Maguire knows the time has come to produce something special on the game's biggest stage.
“The players know the World Club is a really big thing for what could happen in NZ and rugby league," Maguire said.
"To be able to put a World Cup back into New Zealand would be incredible - it’s quite amazing to think they’ve only won one over the period of time with the number of great players that have come out of New Zealand.
"I do know (the situation) because I’ve been over there and unfortunately because of no Warriors and no international games for kids to aspire to, I think we can put the game back on the map over there and the players are aware of what a World Cup could mean for the country."
Maguire is the first non-Kiwi to coach the New Zealand side since Daniel Anderson in the early 2000s, although Wayne Bennett was an assistant to Stephen Kearney when the men in black stunned Australia to claim the 2008 title.
Bromwich is adamant Maguire's passion for the job and for New Zealand rugby league in general has the Kiwis primed for a shot at glory, with their campaign kicking off against the Michael Cheika-coached Lebanon on Monday.
“I think 2017 was a real low point for New Zealand rugby league and Madge (Maguire) came and took over and we’ve gone on to make strides,” said Bromwich.
Classic World Cup plays: The Whare miracle
“Since day one he’s spoken about being the best team in the world and we’ve talked about that every camp since so we really believe in what Madge is doing.
“He’s done a really good job for NZ rugby league, the thing about him is he’s just so passionate. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Having won their last three Tests, most recently against Tonga in June, the Kiwis have cemented their spot at the top of the world rankings and the presence of a posse of premiership-winning Panthers has them full of confidence.
After missing the 74-0 win over Leeds in a warm-up game, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and Scott Sorensen have now joined the squad along with Eels trio Dylan Brown, Isaiah Papali’i and Marata Niukore.
Match Highlights: New Zealand v Australia, Second Test, 1989
“I appreciate Leeds turning up two weeks after a [Super League] grand final, I know that must have been really tough, but to be able to keep them to nil with them throwing the ball all over the place and really chancing their arm, it was a very special defensive effort,” Bromwich said.
“We had Joey (Tapine) and Jared (Waerea-Hargreaves) miss the game and we also had six grand final players missing so we had some pretty special players sitting on the sideline watching.
“We’ve got some talent to come in. It’s crazy. I don’t envy our coach’s job, it’s going to be really tough to tell some players they won’t be playing.”
Bromwich was part of the Kiwi side humbled 34-2 by Australia in the 2013 World Cup Final, and while the scoreline stung he has fond memories of the atmosphere created by 75,000 raucous fans at Old Trafford.
“I think the main thing for me is the noise the crowd makes over here, it’s totally different to the crowds back home in Australia and New Zealand,” he said.
“There’s a lot of AFL and cricket grounds at home but here the crowds are right on top of you.
"I think it’s more the soak-it-up mentality in World Cup. It’s about coming over and enjoying a life experience on the other side of the world."
Match: New Zealand v Lebanon
Round 1 -
Venue: Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington