28 Nov 2018

Warriors' chart new course - but are they heading in the right direction?

3:36 pm on 28 November 2018

The Warriors are charting a new course.

But at the end of the 2019 season, will Stephen Kearney's decision to wave farewell to star halfback Shaun Johnson be seen as brilliant and perfectly-timed - or leaving the team in one hell of a mess?

While the Warriors did make progress this year, they ended eighth of 16 on the table and were well beaten in the knock-out final. That was a disappointing result for a team that was running second for the early part of the season. If they drop back in the table next year, Kearney will surely be looking for a new job himself.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney has effectively shown Shaun Johnson the door.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney has effectively shown Shaun Johnson the door. Photo: Photosport

The decision was inevitable. If Johnson was so peeved at the lack of enthusiasm from the Warriors for a contract extension, that he didn't want to play at the club next year, it would make no sense to force him to see out his contract.

But the Warriors decision to play hardball with its long-serving star must have consequences.

The Warriors have already let Johnson's talented understudy, Mason Lino, leave the club for the Newcastle Knights, and so it now has a gaping chasm in the key halfback spot for 2019.

There is talk that Parramatta playmaker Mitchell Moses could come to the club for next year -he had something of a falling-out with his five eighth Corey Norman last season, so may have itchy feet.

The Warriors could look at shuffling its current stocks - could Roger Tuivasa-Sheck move to five-eighth with Blake Green at halfback, for example? It would be a huge gamble, as Tuivasa-Sheck is such a star at fullback, but there are several recent examples of fullbacks successfully switching roles.

The Warriors will surely not want to start the season with a totally inexperienced halfback in the key playmaker role.

So is it the right decision? For the past two or three years, Johnson has only occasionally showed sparks of the genius that had him crowned the world's best player in 2014, and awarded the Golden Boot.

Shaun Johnson won't be a one club NRL player.

Shaun Johnson won't be a one club NRL player. Photo: Photosport

Then there have also been plenty of times when he has looked out of ideas, running backwards in the search for a gap in the defence.

Blake Green gave the team more direction last season, but at crucial times it was Johnson with his hands on the ball and without much in the way of a plan.

It is also a big decision in terms of Johnson's place in the game in New Zealand. He has had the highest profile of the Warriors, being readily available to chat to the TV cameras or do promotions. He's been articulate and funny and cheerful, and you can't say that about many top rugby league players.

The Warriors are now putting all their eggs, both on and off the field, in the basket of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. He's exceptionally talented and also portrays an excellent image to the media. He stepped up a gear this year, earning the Dally M medal as the game's most consistent player. He needs to step up again and the team will be hoping they can keep him injury-free all season.

In 1990, Kearney's former mentor, Wayne Bennett, demoted the then Australian captain - and one of the game's all-time greats - Wally Lewis, recognising that he had peaked and the future was with upcoming five-eighth Kevin Walters. The move was hugely controversial and divisive at the time, but Bennett reaped the rewards with Walters spearheading the Brisbane Broncos to four premiership victories over the next decade.

If next September, the Warriors have a settled halves combination and are genuine premiership contenders, Stephen Kearney's decision will be seen as a masterstroke.

But if not, the Warriors may be looking for a new coach. Again.