What a difference a year makes.
Warrington Wolves headed into round seven 12 months ago with an unbeaten start to the season, playing an entertaining and expansive brand of rugby league and their confidence sky high.
The Wire went on to lose just eight games all season before Grand Final defeat to Wigan in October and their consistency throughout the year saw them lift the League Leaders’ Shield after finishing top of the table after the conclusion of the Super 8s.
Tony Smith’s side were tipped to repeat their 2016 efforts this campaign and after an incredible and dominant 27-18 win over Brisbane Broncos in the World Club Series last month it was difficult to picture anything different.
However, a dismal and lacklustre start to their 2017 Betfred Super League campaign has seen Warrington lose all six of their opening fixtures and rooted to the foot of the table.
Few would have predicted the Wolves would finish outside the play-offs this season but it now looks questionable whether they will even make the Super 8s.
Winning breeds confidence in sport and there’s no arguing that the Wolves are hurting.
The majority of the squad have never known life at the bottom of the table and it seems like the more the players search for answers the more uncharacteristic errors they are making.
Warrington’s game under Tony Smith is built on free-flowing and expansive rugby league but is leading to the players taking too many risks with the ball in hand and the side should be opting for a more back to basics approach while they weather their perfect storm.
Momentum is huge in rugby league.
When your team is on top you have to make sure you utilise the possession and score and when your backs are against the wall you have to defend for your life.
Warrington are losing too many points in quick succession and as a result are losing the opportunity to keep themselves in the contest.
The Wolves rarely threatened St Helens’ line in the 31-6 defeat last Friday but for the opening 25 minutes a point had not been scored and Warrington were still involved in the arm wrestle.
However, three tries in 10 minutes gave Saints an 18-0 lead at the break and the Wire never recovered.
It was a similar story to their 30-22 defeat to Castleford last month as the Tigers scored four first-half tries in eight minutes to give themselves a healthy lead in the tie.
With confidence being so low the mentality of conceding the first try will be “here we go again”, but the players have to respond to going behind a lot better and be more resilient in defence.
Just how important was Chris Sandow?
Warrington’s kicking game had struggled since the retirement of Lee Briers at the end of 2013 and is it a coincidence that their most successful season since had influential kicker Chris Sandow at the heart of the team?
After the Australian announced he would not be returning for 2017 the Wolves swooped for Widnes captain Kevin Brown but, despite a very encouraging display in the win over Brisbane on his debut, he has been ineffective.
Warrington’s kicking game has been predictable and uninventive although they are not giving themselves good enough field territory to really make an impact and put the opposition under pressure.
Kurt Gidley has now returned to the halves to partner Brown and they must continue to develop their link-up and kicking game.
Neither are mavericks or agile enough to run through the line like Sandow or numerous other half-backs in Super League however.
Youngster Declan Patton is an alternate option but has been thrown into the wilderness by Tony Smith after failing to impress his coach this season.
The return of Chris Hill and Stefan Ratchford were supposedly going to boost the Wolves and turn their fortunes around in recent weeks but neither has been the catalyst to return the Wire to winning ways.
With a squad as big and strong on paper as Warrington’s, blaming injuries is a poor excuse and only Ben Currie now is a notable absentee.
Wigan have lost just one of their opening six games with an extensive injury crisis and each team will suffer the loss of key players throughout the season.
Maintaining the same 17 players each week will aid the Wolves’ cause but cannot be guaranteed and should not be used as an excuse in a sport as physical and tough as rugby league.
“You’re getting sacked in the morning” was the chant St Helens fans aimed towards Tony Smith on Friday night and there’s no doubting the Warrington head coach is under pressure.
After what Smith has achieved at the club there’s no doubt he will be given time to turn the Wolves’ fortunes around but it’s unavoidable that more blame will be pointed at him until the Wire string together a set of wins.
To the media, Smith has a relaxed demeanour and it’s hard to imagine other coaches such as Shaun Wane appearing so calm if Wigan were to go on a dismal run.
Just like his players, Smith will be hurting too and be desperate to guide the Wolves back up the table.
The fixtures don’t get easier for Warrington as they look to win their first game of the season at home to second-placed Hull FC on Saturday.
A victory could be the start of a revival but another defeat would most likely signal the end of any outside hopes the Wolves have of a top-four finish six months before the play-offs start.
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