After their worst loss of the year all but guaranteed a sixth straight season without finals footy, James Dann asks if it’s finally time to abandon all hope of the Warriors ever being good at rugby league again?
The New Zealand Warriors were gifted a perfect start to Saturday afternoon’s must-win game against the bottom-of-the-table Newcastle Knights. From the first kick, Ken Sio of the Knights knocked on, giving the Warriors an attacking set of six. What did they do with it? Precisely nothing. Within 10 minutes, the Warriors were 12 points down, with Mitchell Barnett taking advantage of the porous defence to double his season’s try tally. In the next 70 minutes, the team did little to suggest that they had any hope of overturning the deficit, limping to an embarrassing 26-10 result, their worst loss of a season lacking in highlights.
We’ve been here before, obviously. The Warriors haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, when they made it all the way to the Grand Final. Every year since has been a false dawn, riding on the hope that the next season will be the Warriors’ season. But 2017 feels like the year that the hope ran out.
The Warriors have always been a club that could blow hot and cold – sometimes within the space of 40 minutes of football. Sure, they might get beaten by 30 or 40 points a couple of times in a season, but they’d repay the faith the fans had placed in them with some scintillating football. There is little that can compare with the thrill of watching the boys carve open the opposition defence with a well-timed sidestep or an audacious offload. Even when the team was down by 10, you’d always have the hope that they still had a game changer up their sleeves. Through the last few seasons, though they haven’t made the playoffs, they’ve still had some of these performances, the ones that stoke the embers of hope that should have died out months ago.
2017 has been different.
For many years there have been rumours that the Warriors were trying to recruit a “super coach” – either Craig Bellamy or Wayne Bennett – to turn around their flagging fortunes. After failing to entice either over, they’ve pumped for someone who’s worked with both, but failed to achieve the results. In doing so, they’ve moved towards a more disciplined style of league, which has stifled the natural flair and excitement that makes the Warriors the Warriors. Would die-hard fans prefer to watch a team that wins, if it means grinding out games like the Storm do? Or would they rather retain the thrill and flair, the ‘razzle-dazzle’, even if it meant missing out on the playoffs, year in, year out? The proposition at the moment is a team caught between the two, and doing neither well.
Coach Stephen Kearney has certainly brought a new discipline to the team. There haven’t been many of the blow-out losses that are a black mark on any Warriors season. In recent weeks, they’ve often been within striking distance of a win – just one or two tries away with a quarter of the game to go. Against the Cowboys, they threw it all forward to push for a try that could have tied the game at 18-all, that could have jump-started their flagging campaign, only for Javid Bowen to run a full-field intercept that led to a 24-12 loss.
Either the Warrior’s players aren’t good enough, or they don’t care, or both. Sure, there have been injuries, but it’s a physical competition, and all the clubs have lost players. RTS seems like a lovely guy, but hasn’t really done it on the field. Isaac Luke is just a penalty waiting to happen. The forward pack is a pale shadow of what used to be one of the biggest, most aggressive and most skilful in the league. The only reliable performers have been Simon Mannering and Jacob Lillyman, who seem to have been at the club since the Super League wars in the ’90s.
The best period of the 2017 season was when Kieran Foran came into the side. He and Shaun Johnson brought some urgency to the attack, and made the players outside them look like first-grade players again. But since Foran signed his contract with the Bulldogs for 2018, it’s as though his head is already in Sydney. With Johnson’s injury, the team is overly reliant on a player who just doesn’t appear to be there. The youth program that has delivered stars like Johnson, Konrad Hurrell, Ngani Laumape, Tuimoala Lolohea and Solomone Kata is now unearthing bit-part players who can’t hold down a starting spot.
Harsh words, but this is a team who haven’t played finals football for six years – a record they share with only the perennial battlers the West Tigers over the same period. They have equalled their worst ever fallow run – and the years from 1995 to 2000 were overshadowed by serious issues off field, including the Super League fiasco, the takeover, and the rebrand. Off the field, the club is one of the best-run (and best-supported) in the competition, so it doesn’t have the same excuses to pin their mediocrity on.
Without a remarkable series of results from other teams, or a points deduction following a salary-cap breach (always a chance, this is the NRL after all) this season is done. Kearney and the management should salvage what they can from the remainder of the games by at least fielding some players who seem to want to play for the jersey. They need to find Johnson a halves partner for the 2018 season, a pack that can get some go forward, outside backs that can excite and inspire. If the club expects fans to ‘keep the faith’, then they need to show that they are worthy of that devotion.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.