27 Aug 2017

League: What can we do about the Warriors?

3:13 pm on 27 August 2017

Sports Call - The Warriors are out of NRL play off contention ... yet again.

There are five stages to the typical Warriors season.

Stage One - the pre-season is full of hope. Optimism reigns.

Articles are written, full of rosy predictions that this year the Warriors will get their act together, that they've recruited well in the off-season, that the coach has brought a new toughness to the team and so on.

Stage Two - the opening rounds. The Warriors show flashes of good form and sometimes even enjoy as many wins as losses.

Stage Three - during the "Origin" part of the season, the Warriors score some wins against depleted opponents.

They start to get talked up again, people say they could be the bolters and come through, phrases like "no-one will want to play the Warriors in the finals" are trotted out.

Stage Four - the Warriors have a run of losses, some on an embarrassing scale.

Stage Five - the season ends and the coach is sacked.

Warriors owner Eric Watson (left) and coach Steve Kearney.

Warriors owner Eric Watson (left) and coach Steve Kearney. Photo: Photosport

You could say then that this season has played out just as expected, though there does not yet seem to be talk of the coach Stephen Kearney, being sacked. Yet.

Let's not forget though that the season started off with high hopes.

At last, the Warriors had a world-class spine - the fullback/five-eighth/halfback/hooker combination that are key in any side.

If Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke were all fit, firing and playing at their best, it would surely give the Warriors the leadership and direction the team needs.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Photo: Photosport

And Stephen Kearney seemed to tick all the boxes as coach.

The Warriors have alternated between two types of coach.

Hard-nut Aussies with years of experience in the NRL - and Kiwis with broader rugby experience who "understand" the local players and the Maori/Pacific Island culture.

Kearney seemed to cover both bases - a Maori who grew up playing in the Hutt Valley, with a strong coaching history. Kearney had coached the Kiwis to considerable success, and been 2IC to the two best current coaches, Craig Bellamy and Wayne Bennett.

Yet it hasn't worked.

Kearney's comment a couple of weeks ago after a loss to the cellar-dwelling Newcastle Knights that "there were some guys out there who were trying really hard and some guys that weren't" could seem like tough talk. It could also seem like an admission of failure.

Surely the least long-suffering Warriors fans can expect is for the players to "try really hard".

If Kearney believes some are not, he should be looking to end their contracts.

It is hard to see many positives to Kearney's first year in charge.

Despite the strong spine, and the experienced forwards like Ryan Hoffman and Simon Mannering, the team often seems directionless and out of ideas or inspiration. The free-wheeling style that some have criticised in the past seems largely to have gone, without being replaced by anything in particular.

Is it too harsh to suggest some players don't look fit?

Certainly some don't seem to be able to put a big effort in throughout a game.

The Warriors are capable of a great spell where they might score three tries, and then it's as if they've clocked off, and the other side strikes back. The remarkable thing about a side like the Melbourne Storm is the consistency of effort.

But rather than sack Kearney and seek yet another coach, maybe it would be better to get a clear understanding of what the real problem is.

One of Sydney's more thoughtful rugby league pundits is Paul Kent, who has platforms for his strong opinions on TV and radio and in newspapers and the web in Sydney.

His thought on the Warriors is that the New Zealand rugby league training ground simply isn't as tough as the Australian one.

New Zealand players can survive on flair and raw skill, and don't learn the decision making skills that elevate players like Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston to Immortal status. His solution then would be for the Warriors to hire more tough-minded Aussies.

There may be something in this, certainly Paul Kent knows more about the game than I do. But I do wonder if he has seen many lower grade matches in New Zealand, because the senior game here lacks nothing in physicality. And the Warriors have over the years hired a lot of Australian players who proved to be very disappointing.

Ryan Hoffman ponders the Warriors disappointing 2016 season.

Ryan Hoffman ponders the disappointment of the 2016 season - 2017 has been more of the same. Photo: Photosport

The latest is Ryan Hoffman who when he joined the Warriors, was a New South Wales origin regular and one of the top backrowers in the competition. That can't be said today.

At the Roosters, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck looked set to be the next big thing in rugby league, and his signing with the Warriors seemed a big coup at the time. He looks to be trying his heart out, but doesn't seem to be the player he was. He has had a major injury which kept him out of much of the 2016 season.

It would be good to see a clean-out at the Warriors. It's hard to see Issac Luke improving any further.

Simon Mannering and Jacob Lillyman have made big contributions, especially Mannering - but are they the future? Shaun Johnson has been hampered by injuries, but it now seems a very long time since he was one of the world's best players.

Shaun Johnson is tackled by Penrith's Isaah Yeo.

Shaun Johnson. Photo: Photosport

But the key surely has to be consistency of effort. Fans can forgive a team that loses. Roughly half the teams playing do lose every week. What we are less able to forgive is a team that looks like putting in the hard yards is too much. This season has been incredibly disappointing on that score. So disappointing that it will be hard for anyone to be optimistic about 2018.

There has been talk of the likes of Adam Blair and James Graham joining the club. Let's hope that if they do, they can instill some pride in the jersey, some commitment in training, some toughness in attitude.

It's possible to fret too much about one team's on-field performances. If the Hurricanes have a bad year, it doesn't say anything for the overall health of rugby. But the state of the Warriors does have an importance beyond satisfying Warriors fans.

To me, rugby league is a better spectator sport than rugby union. There's more flow to a league game, the ball is in play more and you can see it all the time. In rugby union, the ball is too often trapped in forward melees, and the long delays while lineouts form are tedious.

A consistently successful and attractive Warriors team could be the springboard for a growth in interest in the game, and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck with his good looks and friendly manner could be a poster-boy for the game.

But the All Blacks are winners. The Warriors are not.