The New Zealand Warriors promise so much, but deliver so little.
Every season, experts sit down to make bold predictions about the year ahead. Teams like Melbourne are consistently placed at the top of the ladder while it is easy to predict that Newcastle will find themselves towards the bottom. The New Zealand Warriors, on the other hand, are the team impossible to predict with any degree of confidence. They are guaranteed to frustrate and are quickly becoming one of the NRL’s most disappointing clubs.
Despite experts constantly selecting the Warriors as a finals bound team each year, the club have not qualified for the Finals since 2011. Only Parramatta have had a longer drought from Finals action, yet the Eels currently sit in seventh on this year’s ladder with a strong chance to qualify for the final series. On the other hand, The Warriors are once again sitting in the middle of the pack, and with Shaun Johnson’s potentially season-ending injury are more likely to fall down the ladder than climb up it.
Shaun Johnson is, however, just one player. With prime access to a whole nation’s worth of rugby league talent, the Warriors should definitely have experienced more success by this stage, their twenty-second season.
Developing local talent has never been an issue. During their disappointing finals hiatus, the club has boasted some immensely talented players who have developed from the junior level. Shaun Johnson has risen up the ranks from a prodigious rookie talent to a Golden Boot winner in 2014. Simon Mannering is a locally-produced talent who is one the most consistent forwards in the competition. The recently-departed Manu Vatuvei was also an immensely talented winger, who recently passed Nigel Vagana as New Zealand’s all-time leading try scorer.
Apart from locally produced talent, the Warriors have been able to attract some of the game’s premier players on the open market. In 2015, they signed Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, the reigning Dally M Fullback of the year and grand final winner with the Roosters in 2013. They brought Ryan Hoffman to the club in 2014, a country and state representative who had experienced success winning multiple grand finals with the Melbourne Storm.
Their most recent heralded signing was Kieran Foran, a proven match winner and another multi-premiership winner at the Sea Eagles. With such impressive recruits, it is no wonder that the Warriors are always considered a premiership contender. However, due to injuries and inconsistent form these signings have not produced a finals berth. What is preventing this side from having consistent on-field success?
Consistency and stability in the coaching ranks has never been a strength for the Warriors. At the start of the finals drought, Brian “Bluey” McClennan was in charge before being sacked with three rounds remaining in that season and being replaced by Tony Iro. Despite the players calling for Iro to be given the job fulltime, Matt Elliott was the man in charge for the 2013 season. Once again the team showed inconsistent form being world beaters one day (as illustrated by a 56-18 win over Brisbane) to doormats the next (showcased by a thrashing from Penrith 62-6 that same season).
Elliot was sacked after five rounds of the 2014 season and the untested Andrew McFadden was put in charge. In his time at the helm, the Warriors never finished higher than ninth. Stephen Kearney is the current man in charge and it is too early to judge his career at the Warriors a success. However, the Warriors’ current positon on the ladder suggests another mediocre year, and a September vacant of finals.
What is the problem with the Warriors? Many believe the amount of travel the side does week to week would have a significant impact. If that were true, though, the five Super Rugby franchises who travel even further would be duds as well; of course they are not! There could be a number of other factors.
Although there are passionate Warriors fans, there is no question that Rugby Union is king in New Zealand. It is not simply a sport, but a religion. With this being the case, the performance of the Warriors may not be under as much scrutiny compared to if they were located in a league-dominated area such as Australia.
Yes, their league side might underperform and underwhelm each year, but New Zealand fans only need to turn to Super Rugby where they currently have five of the top six performing teams in the competition. Maybe this success satisfies the New Zealand sporting public.
A strategy the Warriors have adopted recently is to recruit as many New Zealand internationals as possible. The current spine of the Warriors is the same one that plays at Test level which is another reason why many believed this could be the Warriors year. We have seen that a consistent spine can have positive effects in other representative arenas with the current Queensland side being led by the key positional players of the Melbourne Storm. However, at the Warriors this has not led to success.
Perhaps these players need the opportunity to expand their games by playing with other playmakers, especially those from other representative areas, would help to build on their knowledge and improve their game. James Maloney, a current Australian and New South Wales player, was instrumental in bringing success to the Warriors side that made the Grand Final in 2011.
The keystone to the concept of bringing home internationals to the Warriors was enlisting Stephen Kearney – the New Zealand test coach – as their club coach in 2017. Having a test coach apply standards and routines at club level surely could only be a net positive for the Warriors. Perhaps not. It appears as though having the test coach as your club’s mentor seems to have doubled the pressure on Warriors players, rather than reduce it.
Also Stephen Kearney is a player’s coach and seems to have strong relationships with his players. While strong player-coach relationship are crucial, a club coach needs to get the balance right. Players need to be constantly challenged and be striving to succeed. Perhaps more of a strict disciplinarian is needed to bring more pride back in the jersey.
A successful New Zealand team is crucial to the growth of Rugby League on the international stage and this means we need the Warriors to perform. As frustrating as they are, the Warriors draw us in. They can be so brilliant when their passes stick and they put in a consistent effort. On his day, Shaun Johnson is one of the best players to watch. And as much as Rugby League tipsters, including myself will vow not to pick them to win another game after another loss to the Cowboys, I guarantee you there will be many who will disregard this logic and tip them to upset the Sharks believing that this will be the week that they put it together.
That is the Warriors in a nutshell. Spectacular one week, a tipster’s nightmare the next.