EMOTIONAL New Zealand coach David Kidwell has given no guarantee that the likes of Jason Taumalolo will be welcomed back into the Kiwi side after their controversial rugby league World Cup defection to Tonga.
Kidwell on Sunday regularly had to take a moment to compose himself when talking about his nightmare Cup preparation.
He was blindsided by Taumalolo's decision to play for Tonga along with the likes of fellow Kiwis Manu Ma'u, Sio Siua Taukieaho and David Fusitu'a.
While Kidwell said he respected Taumalolo's call and believed the hardships had made him a better coach, he was clearly still unhappy with the Cowboys wrecking ball.
Asked if the door would be open to Taumalolo for a future Kiwi return, Kidwell said: "The space we are in right now, it's not up to me." But he added: "I 100 per cent respect his decision to play for Tonga.
"But the group of people we have got have a sense of belonging in that jersey.
"That's where my focus is, that's where everyone's energy is."
Taumalolo reportedly brushed New Zealand to protest Kidwell's bold decision to slap a World Cup ban on skipper Jesse Bromwich and backrower Kevin Proctor after a cocaine controversy following their trans-Tasman Test loss in May.
Kidwell - who took over the Kiwi reins from Stephen Kearney late last year - also lost his assistant days before the tournament after Garth Brennan was appointed head coach of NRL club the Gold Coast Titans.
"Dealing with adversity, I think every coach goes through it at different stages - I have just had to face it at the start," Kidwell said.
"But if I hadn't gone through that it wouldn't have made me the person I am now - it has made me a stronger coach."
In what appeared to be thinly veiled swipe at his defectors, Kidwell's chest swelled with pride when he spoke of the passion his squad had for the Kiwi jersey.
"You always have a vision as coach and I couldn't be more proud of this group of men - it's better than I thought," Kidwell said.
"Everyone in there feels a sense of belonging, they are there to make it better, the culture - these players are shaping it.
"It's how I envision what the jersey deserves. The 24 men we have got in there, deserve to be in there." The stage is set for a fiery New Zealand clash with Tonga in their group stage showdown on November 11.
They open their campaign against Samoa at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday, before travelling to Christchurch to play Scotland on November 4 and then the Tongans.
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