Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy admits he was shocked at counterpart Stephen Kearney's abrupt departure from the NZ Warriors last weekend.
The Auckland NRL side will take on their archrivals on Friday, less than a week after Kearney was fired by club management.
In his fourth season at the helm, the former NZ Kiwis coach and captain had accumulated 32 wins/46 losses/one draw, including a 2-4 record this season, but was guiding his team through a particularly challenging season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Assistant Todd Payten has taken over the reins for the rest of the season and has had to prepare his distraught players for their clash with the 4-2 Storm.
Kearney played 139 games for Melbourne, including Bellamy's first season as coach, and began his own coaching apprenticeship under the premiership-winning master.
"Most of people in the rugby league world were quite surprised at what happened to Steve," admits Bellamy, who checked in on his former protégé during the week.
"At the end of the day, I don't know the ins and outs of the Warriors, but it seemed a very strange decision after what they've been through."
The Warriors have twice committed to basing themselves in Australia to keep the NRL competition format intact, placing extreme pressure on players and staff, who will likely spend months apart from their families. Kearney's family has lived in Brisbane throughout his tenure at the club.
The squad has also been racked with injuries and has resorted to borrowing players from other clubs, with strict quarantine protocols still applying to reinforcements flown from New Zealand.
This week, a spike in COVID-19 cases has forced Melbourne Storm out of their Victorian headquarters. Friday's game will be played at the neural venue of Sydney's Jubilee Oval.
"Eight weeks ago, they did what we're doing now and we don't know how long that will go on," reflects Bellamy. "With all due respect, they have had a few injuries, but still managed a couple of wins and a couple of really good performances.
"I spoke to Steve quickly during the week and it was obviously a real shock to him, but he's moving on with his life and his footy life."
Kearney has guided the Warriors to the playoffs just once during his time at the club and while his record fell short of that expected by new owners Autex, given the circumstances, the timing was widely regarded as needlessly cut-throat.
"It seemed like a very strange and harsh decision, but that's just my personal opinion," agrees Bellamy.
Join us at 8pm Friday for live updates of the Warriors v Storm NRL clash