Rugby league author Will Evans looks back on yet another terrible Warriors season and finds a different origin, one which might – finally – lead to a different result in 2016.
Déjà vu isn’t a strong enough term. Recurring nightmare sums it up more accurately.
The Warriors’ 2015 campaign – after familiar pre-season tough-talk – was effectively a carbon copy of the previous three: a slow start, a mid-season surge that had many spruiking them as title contenders, and a diabolical finish that saw the club flunk out of finals contention.
That last element was exaggerated even more than usual. In 2013 and ’14, the Warriors were still in the top-eight race heading into Round 26. This year, breaking under the burden of a terrible injury toll, they lost their last eight games to finish 13th. The 20-year celebrations descended into a funeral procession.
But it was the way they lost those games that made it an all-time low for the Warriors’ long-suffering fans. In the six rounds after Shaun Johnson’s gut-wrenching broken ankle, the Warriors scored the opening try on four occasions – twice building double-figure leads – but crumbled to lose every time. They conceded 50 points in consecutive weeks, and averaged 32.5 points conceded from Rounds 19-26.
Usually when the Warriors are struggling, we can at least count on them finding the try-line. Not so during this slump. They scored just over 11 points per game, and were held to nil twice – a fate that had befallen the club just four times in its previous 20 seasons.
The mid-season euphoria and dreams of premiership grandeur that followed the acquisition of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke for 2016 has dissipated into scepticism and negativity amongst the Warriors’ faithful. Someone has to be held accountable, and in professional sports – and certainly in the NRL and at the Warriors – that’s usually the coach. Unsurprisingly, Andrew McFadden’s position at the helm has come under intense scrutiny.
Rumours abounded recently that the club’s 2011 grand final mentor Ivan Cleary, who endured a similarly disappointing and injury-ravaged campaign with Penrith this year, was on the outs with Panthers general manager Phil Gould and on his way back to Penrose.
Then earlier this week, Brisbane’s Triple M journo Ben Dobbin sent New Zealand into a frenzy by declaring on TV show NRL360 that McFadden won’t last the off-season, and the Warriors are chasing Stephen Kearney. CEO Jim Doyle, in that irresistibly nonchalant Scottish accent, rubbished the report and reaffirmed the club’s support of ‘Cappy’. (Dobbin, it should be noted, is regularly ribbed by NRL360‘s co-hosts about the low conversion rate of his ‘scoops’.)
The romanticism of Cleary, the Warriors’ most successful coach, or Kearney, a Warriors foundation player and all-conquering Kiwi Test coach, is tough to deny. But the best option is sticking with McFadden.
Unlike his ill-fated predecessors, soft touch Brian McClennan and the overtly spiritual Matt Elliott, ‘Cappy’ has no qualms in taking a tough line with the Warriors. He has already spoken candidly about the unprofessional, unacceptable culture that has permeated the club for years. He’ll tear it all down and start again if he needs to.
While it’s no justification for their meek late-season surrender, not enough weight has been afforded to the worst injury crisis in the club’s history. Thomas Leuluai, Ben Henry and Ngani Laumape were rubbed out early on, the mercurial Shaun Johnson – who had recently found the elusive consistency and game-management to go with his unparalleled attacking genius – and Manu Vatuvei failed to finish the season. Additionally, Sam Tomkins, Konrad Hurrell, Ryan Hoffman and David Fusitua all missed significant chunks of 2015. A staggering six rookies played in the Warriors’ final match; four of those made 18 or more appearances in their first year in the big time.
McFadden deserves the opportunity to atone for this year’s failure with a team he has put together, rather than the one he inherited. Plenty of deadwood has been moved on, while he was instrumental in luring Tuivasa-Sheck and Luke back home – not to mention getting Hoffman over here 12 months ago. He’ll have Johnson back on deck, and he’ll bear the fruits of blooding so many youngsters this year.
It’s also about time we debunked a clichéd Warriors myth. The notion that the club’s talented roster dictates they should have won several premierships by now is garbage. Yes, they’ve underachieved – often embarrassingly – but the overall strength of their squad have been significantly overstated.
The Warriors have only intermittently possessed world-class players in the key ‘spine’ positions – and rarely more than one at the same time. There’s always been a couple of glaring weaknesses in their full-strength line-up. That all changes in 2016 when three-quarters of the world-beating Kiwi Test spine will combine on the same NRL team-sheet – and, consequently, the excuses will run out. It’s unquestionably a top-four roster now and McFadden won’t survive another non-finals finish, a fate he will surely accept as reasonable.
More support will be provided for the coach; former All Blacks mentor Wayne Smith has been sounded out, and someone of his calibre would be a tremendous asset for McFadden and the club. Obviously more needs to change at the club than simply putting together a line-up that resembles a Fantasy League enthusiast’s wet dream. The issue of culture – however vague that may seem to rest of us – is apparently being addressed, and tied in with that is instilling the requisite mental toughness to compete on a weekly basis.
Fans want to see their heroes hurt rather than upbeat after a narrow loss. Ashamed rather than bewildered after a 30-point defeat. Shoddy edge defence or poor ball-security can be rectified with practice, but a hard-nosed attitude is more difficult to learn. The perception of the Australian media is that for all their talent and potential, the Warriors turn to water when the heat is applied. Unfortunately, that’s not a case of customary Kiwi-bashing – they’re bang on the mark.
The ‘actions not words’ leadership style of the unassuming Simon Mannering – arguably the club’s second-greatest player after Stacey Jones – came under fire during the Warriors’ losing streak, with Hoffman, Johnson and Luke mooted as possible replacements. But McFadden nipped any prospect of a captaincy change in the bud.
“We’ll be reviewing everything, but one thing I can say is Simon Mannering will still be captain,” the coach said pointedly. “In these circumstances, when times are tough, you really find out about people. He left it all on the park and he was an inspiration to his teammates. That’s how he leads, so nothing’s going to change there.”
The strength of McFadden’s conviction is admirable, but there’s an overriding feeling he could be missing a trick by keeping the status quo in that department. As Cleary did by stripping the captaincy from the revered Steve Price in 2010 and handing it to a 23-year-old Mannering, McFadden could revitalise the Warriors by putting the (c) next to Johnson’s name.
Chief playmakers such as Allan Langer, Laurie Daley, Brad Fittler, Andrew Johns, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith all took on captaincy roles at a similar stage of their careers, and all but Daley and Thurston have led their clubs to a grand final win. The 25-year-old Johnson is a shot-caller of the same ilk, while his burgeoning maturity on and off the field has been as eye-catching as his footwork.
Nevertheless, in the shape of Johnson, Mannering, Tuivasa-Sheck, Luke and Hoffman, along with stalwarts like Ben Matulino, Jacob Lillyman and Manu Vatuvei, the Warriors are laced with leaders and winners. Seeing the suspended Luke in tears after South Sydney’s finals exit last Sunday should be more exciting for Warriors fans than his peerless dummy-half work. The team desperately needs that level of passion.
It’s a difficult concept to grasp given recent results and several years of disappointment (against a backdrop of two decades of unfulfilled prophecies) but the positives far outweigh the negatives heading into 2016.
It doesn’t bear thinking about where the club goes from here if the latest strategy crashes and burns. And perhaps the Warriors don’t deserve our blind faith after so many broken promises. But do you really want to be on the outside looking in if the Doyle-McFadden combination steers them to the promised land?