Michael Maguire was “gun shy” when his phone rang, especially if it was a player on the other end.
He had just received several calls from players who, for several reasons, would be unavailable for selection consideration in the upcoming Pacific Championships against the two World Cup finalists, Australia, and Samoa.
The “NO” column started with champion fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck who could not gain a release from NZ Rugby or the Warriors.
Coach “Madge” knew he had to have a spine to be competitive with the Kangaroos – James Tedesco, Daly Cherry-Evans, Cam Munster, Harry Grant, and Ben Hunt -, but after losing incumbent hooker Brandon Smith, he also received negative responses from Jeremy Marshall-King, Phoenix Crossland and even Wayde Egan was turned down after living in New Zealand for five years.
Champion halfback Shaun Johnson was the next to call in with a “red card”, followed by the Warriors’ skipper, the highly influential Tohu Harris, who Madge was relying on to ensure the ball went to his star backline in a timely fashion.
With no ball-playing lock, it was critical that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad swapped positions with Golden Boot winner Joey Manu, who had limited game time in recent months and would be better suited in his club position at right centre.
Young Raider Matthew Timoko was selected as the other centre to make his Kiwi debut.
A goal kicker was required and the NRL leading point scorer Jamayne Isaako slotted in perfectly.
Ronaldo Mulitalo had an excellent World Cup and was uncontested when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was another winger who was unavailable.
Marata Niukore was also a major withdrawal as he was to fill the strategic role of being an impact forward, but also having the versatility to cover the centre position if an outside back went down.
Based on their club form and supporting data, Leo Thompson and Griffin Neame received a call-up and were asked to keep the momentum going when he rested his gun middles, James Fisher-Harris, Joe Tapine, and Moses Leota.
A final 17 was settled on after many setbacks.
The Kiwis’ luckless two-point defeat by the Kangaroos in the World Cup semis still gave Maguire nightmares and after getting his squad together, he set about planning a revenge assault against an Australian team that boasted 12 Maroons still basking in the glow of their successful Origin win.
To win the Pacific Championships, the Kiwis would have to play in three matches and two of those were basically sudden death.
The initial match was against the WC runners-up Samoa, and despite only a one-week preparation, the Kiwis implemented the game plan to perfection with a 50-0 demolition which ensured a finals birth.
And while the following match against the Kangaroos was meaningful, the focus on the preparation was ensuring that they peaked for the final in Hamilton the following week as many of the players came into camp underdone.
Mal Meninga’s Kangaroos were too good in Melbourne even though the Kiwis were only one try behind with three minutes to go. It was a dead rubber and Madge’s men were “flat” after playing the big Samoan forwards and then adding the required “miles in their legs” during the week.
Madge had implemented a Bart Cummings style Melbourne Cup preparation for his players so they would peak both physically and mentally for the decider.
He did not leave a stone unturned including toning down the much-loved Haka, which although can be invigorating, can also be energy-sapping, and getting off to a good start was Madge’s first ask of his players.
The history books will read that the Kiwis went on to record a five-tries-to-nil win over the Kangaroos, it was the biggest losing margin in Australia’s Test history.
It was a sublime performance by the coach and his players.
The tactics were completely changed from the previous week as Australia were boosted by their two champion props in Payne Haas and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and the Kiwis did not have anyone else to call on that would improve the team.
Madge had to go with what he had, but the big change was the brilliant tactics that involved his halves Jahrome Hughes and Dylan Brown combining.
The unsung hero was veteran Kieran Foran who was asked to play the crucial dummy half role and ensure the big forwards received quality ball. His combination with Nu Brown, who also had not played hooker at NRL level that season, was key.
A narrative was that the Kangaroos were tired. So were the Kiwis who were bashed up, and if the final had been an NRL match, three forwards would likely not have played, while player of the final Nicoll-Klokstad played with a broken rib suffered from the initial Samoan match.
Madge sat down with Charnze and asked for a black or white answer if he could play on. It was never going to be a maybe which would have hindered the team’s preparation. It had to be a definitive “yes I am in”, or “no”.
When he made the gutsy call to play with pain, that set the standard for the entire team.
The Kiwis obilterated the two World Cup Finalists, Australia, and Samoa, in the two matches that really counted for a combined 80-0 scoreline.
It is not a World Cup, but it is not a bad consolation on the way to the next one in 2026.