Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The curious case of the New Zealand Warriors

Historically, the New Zealand Warriors seasons of success have been followed by prolonged periods of disappointing underachievement. In recent years, they have lit the competition alight one week and not turned up the next.

Their inability to bring consistency to their performances has meant they’ve missed the finals for the last five-straight years, despite being considered one of the league’s best sides at the start of every year.

So, as another season rolls around, what will the Warriors bring to the table in 2017?

The Warriors contemplating another year of missed opportunity in 2016.
Long-considered the NRL’s ‘Dark Horse’, and with the addition of a new coach, star-playmaker and international spine, will this finally be the year everything comes together?

Perhaps tagging them with a ‘dark horse’ title is misguided, because everyone knows how good they ‘can’ be. Maybe a ‘white-elephant’ suits better, considering they have the talent but produce next to nothing, right?

While injuries may have hampered their seasons in 2015 and 2016, the fact the club went with un-tried NRL coach Andrew McFadden following the departure of Matthew Elliot was baffling.

With a team capable of achieving considerable damage on the back of 2014 Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson, who in his mid-20s was arguably at career-peak form, the warriors surely could have done with a more experienced head in charge.

Remember this a team who pundits constantly suggest need more discipline, both on the field and around the club.

Hindsight, however, is a valuable thing, and for all their recent woes, they may have finally found the right man for the job in Stephen Kearney.

A former Warriors player himself, Kearney has spent almost 30 years involved in professional rugby league.

He returns to Auckland with a World Cup and Four Nations trophy to his name; assistant-coaching experience under Craig Bellamy and Wayne Bennett; and crucially, time as an NRL head coach.

Doubters will point to his failed two-year stint at Parramatta where he achieved only at 24% win-rate, but the fact he went straight to the Broncos to continue his coaching career shows his determination to succeed.

After spending four years at the Broncos, Kearney would have had ample time to reflect on what went wrong at the Eels and he has now quite-rightly got another well-deserved chance.

Can Kearney unlock the Warriors potential? 
The appointment of the proud Kiwi may also assist a squad who have previously been touted as needing a coach who understands their culture. It was reported that former coach Matthew Elliot went out of his way to achieve that, but to little avail.

One of Kearney’s toughest but most vital tasks will be to name a captain, with Ryan Hoffman, Simon Mannering, Isaac Luke and Shaun Johnson all in contention.

While Hoffman took over from Mannering in 2016, perhaps handing the role to halfback Johnson will allow his talents, energy and determination to filter through the side.

Johnson should hopefully have the benefit of a stable, experienced and equal-in-talent halves partner in Kieran Foran, who will take a large chunk of playmaking pressure off him.

For all his troubles off-the-field, Foran can produce a steadiness, grit, and competitive desire the Warriors so desperately need.

In essence, his consistency and stamina could be the perfect partner for the flashy and thrilling style of play from Johnson.

But many questions remain, for example:

·      How will Issac Luke perform under Kearney?
·      Will Roger Tuivasa-Sheck regain his best after an ACL reconstruction?
·      Will Stalwarts Hoffman and Mannering have the punch as hole-running second rowers?
·      Is there enough quality on the fringes to produce points?
·      Do the Warriors even have the genuine hunger to go all the way?
In what looks to be one of the more open competitions in recent years, where the Warriors end up at the end of NRL Season 2017 is anyone’s guess.

While many questions remain to be answered, they will surely be one of the teams to watch as they enter the next era at a club who has traditionally underachieved.

Mt. Smart Stadium must become a place teams dread visiting in 2017.
If they can get their fans on-board and make Mt. Smart Stadium a living-hell for their opposition to visit, they will have every chance to make their best statement in years.

But it’s the Warriors, you just never know what you’ll get.