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Kiwis will be fine without SBW: Bennett

08/08/2008 07:33:53 PM Comments (0)

Veteran mentor Wayne Bennett pointed to recent history as proof enough that New Zealand can be more than competitive without Sonny Bill Williams.

Williams has been named as part of a preliminary 49-man Kiwi squad for this year's Rugby League World Cup, but the renegade backrower is an almost certain non-starter following his defection to French rugby union.

He is set to make his debut for Toulon at the weekend although the Bulldogs have gained a court injunction preventing him from playing anywhere but in the NRL.

Bennett, in his role as New Zealand's coaching and management adviser, said not having Williams - who has played seven Tests - would no doubt be a blow for the Kiwis.

But he was quick to dismiss claims they'd be cannon-fodder for a full-strength Australian line-up.

And he used the example of New Zealand's historic 2005 Tri-Nations win over the Kangaroos - when Bennett was coach of the Aussies and Williams was on the sidelines - as proof.

"Sonny Bill wasn't in the team that day and they got beaten in extra time in 2006 at the Sydney Football Stadium, which was another magnificent game of rugby league, a great Test match, Sonny Bill didn't play that night either," Bennett said.

"We are always disappointed when players of his ability are not available."

"Life goes on. There are plenty of players in New Zealand.

Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) chairman Colin Love said Williams had been named in the preliminary squad because he was still eligible.

"At this stage he is still a registered NRL player and he will be eligible for New Zealand, and has been named by New Zealand today in their squad," Love said.

"But if he plays rugby union in breach of his contract then he won't be playing in the World Cup."

With the likes of Roy Asotasi, Krisnan Inu, Benji Marshall and Brent Webb named in the squad, there is no doubt the Kiwis have players capable of troubling fellow heavyweights Australia and England.

But with the likes of Stacey Jones and Ruben Wiki having hung up their representative boots following the halcyon days of `05-06, there are fears New Zealand could lack the mental edge needed to go the distance in the October/November tournament.

"We are quite comfortable with the number of players that are available and who they are and we feel we can get a pretty strong squad," Bennett said.

"We just want guys out (there) who want to play for New Zealand.

"They had two great years in 05 and 06. We are only talking about two years away but they have lost a real core of their people there.

"There is quite a number of other players in that group who can step up to this thing."

Head coach Stephen Kearney said the door was still open for players outside the preliminary squad to force themselves into the final 24.

"We feel we have covered all options at this stage but the door certainly isn't closed to players who haven't been included," said Kearney.

"There's still a lot of football to be played both in the NRL and in the Super League."

New Zealand open their campaign against defending champions Australia on October 26.

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