Friday, July 7, 2017

Two coaches, two captains, one correct call.

As the start of the 2017 NRL season loomed, Stephen Kearney made a left-field call to select Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as captain of the New Zealand Warriors. 

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney & Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett.

The 23-year-old was returning from a season-ending ACL reconstruction when Kearney made the preseason selection, and was virtually a newcomer to the Warriors first-grade side – having only played seven games in 2016.

His promotion to leader of the code’s biggest underachievers and highly-maligned side, brought surprisingly little response from rugby league commentators given the context of the selection.

Simon Mannering had held the role for five years from 2010-15, before handing it over to former Melbourne Storm stalwart Ryan Hoffman in 2016.

Hoffman, having come out of the Craig Bellamy-run system at the Storm, tried with little avail to lift the standards and discipline within the heavily kiwi-fielded team.

Their disappointing end to the 2016 season – which they played without Tuivasa-Sheck – culminated in the sacking of coach Andrew McFadden. Bizarrely, he was kept on as an assistant coach to relearn the ropes under a more experienced campaigner.

So when Stephen Kearney was brought in to elicit the best from the flegding New Zealand franchise, he was faced with a number of possibilities for captain selection. Kearney himself appeared to be what the Warriors’ players have always murmured they need; someone who understands the kiwi-culture.

He was the New Zealand national-side coach when he accepted the role, sacked from the Parramatta Eels after two years in his first NRL head-coaching gig, and a former assistant coach to Craig Bellamy at the Storm and Wayne Bennett at the Broncos.

Kearney looked set to be taking over one of the most promising and exciting sides assembled in recent memory. An international spine including Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran and Issac Luke. Outside those four, Hoffman and Mannering remained the key veterans offering an abundance of experience and hard-working qualities.

Realistically, those six players were the ones up for selection as captain. With Foran always looking likely to spend only a year at the club, and Hoffman and Mannering having already held the role, there were three presumably left in the running.

Renowned hot-head Isaac Luke is the most-passionate Kiwi you could probably find in the national side, but his aggression can sometimes get the better of him.

That left halfback Shaun Johnson and Tuivasa-Sheck.

Johnson is the prodigiously talented half who has claimed a Golden Boot as the world’s best rugby league player, played in a grand final with the Warriors in 2011 and won his national side a Four Nations Final in 2014.

With around 120 games of NRL experience across six years, the 26-year-old halfback was situated at start of this season to be entering the peak period of his career.

He plays the main position in his side, is the Warriors highest-paid player, and has in many pundits’ eyes yet to reveal his best on a consistent basis.

The choice for Stephen Kearney should have been obvious, make Johnson captain and let the responsibility take his side to another level. It should be – his – side, as halfback and one of the most naturally-gifted players in the game, he already guides and leads the Warriors around the park.

Their game feeds and builds off Johnson.

Halfbacks Daly Cherry-Evans & Shaun Johnson.

Back in the preseason and on the other side of the ditch, rookie coach Trent Barrett was entering his second year with Manly-Warringah.

His club’s long-term captain Jamie Lyon had retired at the conclusion of 2016 and he was left with a similar choice to Kearney.

But Barrett didn’t hesitate. The choice for him, was simple. 

He handed the job to the club’s highest-paid player in Daly Cherry-Evans and put the onus on his main playmaker to take the side to the next level.

What happened was Cherry-Evans took it upon himself to lift his own personal standards, ditching an off-season to get ahead of the rest and training through the break.

Once that was achieved, the Manly half would be able to take command of – his – side and lift them to where they need to be.

The results of the Warriors and Sea Eagles situations are telling.

Image: Fox Sports

Manly sit in third position on the NRL ladder and Cherry-Evans is in career-best form. They have surprised everyone this season on the back of his performances and are in the running for a top-two finish.

The Warriors are running 10th and have been dismally poor in the majority of their 16 games this season. Johnson has yet to fire and the side are teetering on missing the finals for the sixth year in a row.

So woeful have the Warriors been, their place as a franchise within the NRL competition has even been brought into question. Possessing one of the best starting sides in the league, they have shown little fight or resolve to overcome their past failings.  

What they clearly lack is a demanding leader. A general; a ruthless commander of troops who can demand the best from his men and is in the thick of the action.

Trent Barrett went one way, Stephen Kearney went the other.

You be the judge.