League

In search of a pulse at Mt Smart Stadium

Even the carpark attendant is nervous. It’s 30 minutes before the first match of the Warriors’ 2017 NRL season against the Newcastle Knights. For the folks that staff the popup carparks at the industrial lots surrounding Mt Smart Stadium, it’s business time. On a good day, the Warriors’ faithful will surge into the lots and cheerfully fork out $10 for the convenience of a short walk to the stadium.

Opening day should provide bumper revenues, but so far it’s been a slow day.

“We’ll see – it should be starting now,” says the bum bag-packing Polynesian bloke who gives me my change and guides me into my spot next to a bathroom tile and floorings showroom.

His unease is understandable. After five straight seasons of largely unabated misery, it’s hard to have much confidence in the Warriors’ pulling power.

Signs are more positive at the unlovely 60s-era stadium’s ticketing booth, with queues streaming into the carpark. But what looks like a late rush of interest ahead of a “can’t possibly lose this one” match against a team that has lost 16 straight games turns out to be a ticketing system glitch.

Inside the gates, the stadium is around half full; the concessionaires on the concourse doing a moderate trade, apart from Fritz’s Wieners, where around a dozen people are queueing for a pre-match bratwurst.

If the atmosphere emanating from the stands is subdued, in the press box it’s funereal.

“They are not going to do this every game are they?” asks Herald on Sunday reporter Michael Burgess, clearly aggrieved, as the Warriors are welcomed onto the field by a man blowing a conch shell in an irritating fashion.

It’s easy to empathise with the journalists’ collective disquiet. The Warriors have a new coach for a talent-packed squad and are playing their opening match at Mt Smart for the first time since 2009.

If they blow it against the godawful Knights, another season of dutifully recording a campaign of pointlessness and misery surely beckons for the beaten-down scribes.

It takes precisely 75 seconds for a surge of dread to sweep the stadium. The Warriors kick off, defend a set well enough and then hand the ball to hulking wing Ken Maumalo for the first hit-up of the season. Maumalo fumbles. Knights attacking scrum on the 20. Deposed captain Ryan Hoffman makes a brilliant one-on-one tackle to prevent a try, but the signs are there for all to see.

Same old, same old.

Optimism was hard to find as things slowly unraveled against the Knights. Picture Getty images

There’s no one line answer to the vexing, oft-raised question of “what the heck is wrong with those Warriors?”

It’s a question that comes highly loaded, with deep-rooted cultural, racial and attitudinal deficiencies among the most prominent suppositions. Roll those three into a neat ball and you get something fairly akin to former Kiwis’ coach and Warriors owner Graham Lowe’s bro culture assessment.

The strong suspicion among – particularly Pakeha - ‘fans’ is that the players don’t try hard enough and don’t care enough, in part at least because many of them are laid back Polynesians.

In its basest terms, this is the “too many coconuts” view.

Leaving aside the indefensibly racist aspect of that theory, it also flies in the face of reality. In 1985, Polynesians made up just 1.8 per cent of the then NSWRL’s player base. In 2015, that figure was 38 per cent. All NRL clubs have lots of Polynesian players, including the consistently successful ones.

Polynesians aren’t heavily recruited because they are bad players who make teams less likely to win games.

The number of Polynesian players in the club’s ranks didn’t seem to negatively impact on the Warriors in 2011, when the Warriors qualified for grand finals in the NRL, NSW Cup and Toyota Cup (U20s) to claim the NRL Club Championship – the trophy awarded to the club that performs best across all grades.

Biological essentialism bubbles to the surface with the Warriors all too often. Steve Roach and Brett Kimmorley have both described the Warriors as playing “jungle ball” during television commentary, while Billy Moore opted for the more considered “coconut style” during an ‘analysis’ show.

At the opposite end of the kooky spectrum, some believe the Warriors are simply cursed. There are a few versions of the “curse of Mt Smart” but they all boil down to the same thing – a grievous insult to Maoritanga. In this theory, the club’s bungled appropriation of a moko logo has led to a lifelong curse, which it seems will condemn the club to one unsuccessful grand final appearance a decade.

From Boston’s Curse of the Bambino – for trading away Babe Ruth to the Yankees – to the Curse of Ramsay – where a celebrity dies within hours of Welsh footballer Aaron Ramsey scoring a goal (David Bowie and Robin Williams are on an extensive list), sports curses are rife. But they are, of course, complete cobblers.

Rather than a deep-seated cultural issue holding them back, it’s an unresolved, recurring identity crisis that plagues the Warriors. Despite now being in its early 20s, the club still doesn’t know who or what it really is.

A flag bearer for a minority sport in New Zealand and sole foreign entity in an Australian competition, the Warriors must adopt and adapt to thrive – but how much?

There is, without question, an element of “when in Rome” required to succeed in a sport utterly dominated by Australia for a good half a century. But Kiwi league has always had its own unique identity. Whenever the Warriors have stripped away that identity and gone ‘too Australian’, disaster has ensued.

Last season, under the amiable Andrew McFadden, the NRL coaching staff was entirely Australian, as was the club’s head of athletic development and head physio. The impression was that – in a season that would be do-or-die for his tenure – McFadden opted for supporting voices he knew and trusted, and those voices all belonged to fellow Australians.

To the despair of many fans, that impacted on McFadden’s selections, where Aussie journeymen such as Jonathan Wright and Blake Ayshford were preferred to vastly more talented but less-experienced and dependable players such as David Fusitua.

That approach has not historically proved successful at the Warriors but nor, it must be said, has the opposite tack. In 2012, Bluey McLennan surrounded himself with an all-Kiwi brains trust of Tony Iro, John Ackland and Ruben Wiki. It didn’t go well.

The last time the club had a firm grasp on its identity was during the six-year reign of Ivan Cleary. An indefatigable type whose affinity for New Zealand ran deep during a decade here as a player, coach and father of two Kiwi-born children, Cleary had a clear vision of what the club should be.

I covered Cleary’s tenure as head coach as a beat writer for the New Zealand Herald. During that time, he might have phoned me three times to raise matters of concern. On the first of those occasions, Cleary wanted to discuss a Herald story detailing the record number of Australia players that would be taking the field for the first match of the season.

“Look,” he said, “I can see your point. But we are building something here.”

The intent, he said, was to ultimately make the club as Kiwi as possible. He would prove good to his word.

Cleary appointed Kiwis to key roles, including assistant coaching, recruitment and player development roles, and replaced Stephen Price as captain with Simon Mannering. Australian journeymen were gradually phased out as the club’s burgeoning talent system produced the likes of Elijah Taylor, Ben Henry, Ben Matulino, Russell Packer, Sione Lousi and, finally, Shaun Johnson.

With the emerging Kiwi talent supported by the likes of hand-picked, hard-nosed Aussies such as Micheal Luck, Jacob Lillyman, James Maloney and Brent Tate, the Warriors seemed to have the formula about right during the Cleary era.

Looking out from the Colin Kay stand at a half-full stadium during the Newcastle match, it’s hard to believe that not all the long ago the greatest complaint Warriors fans had was that their team kicked to Manu Vatuvei’s wing with monotonous regularity and didn’t do well enough in finals matches after making the cut four times in six years.

With McLennan, Matt Elliott and McFadden all having had stints in the hot seat since 2011, the only constant on the football side of the club’s operations has been change. Throw in the well-intended but ultimately shambolic buy-in by Sir Owen Glenn and a change of CEO, and the ground at Mt Smart has been ever shifting.

If the Warriors are to succeed, they’ll need to figure out who they are.

Back out on the field, a familiar tale is unfolding. Prop Albert Vete is illegally stripped but the referees miss it and the Knights open the scoring from the ensuing possession. The try is referred to ‘The Bunker’ but there’s a technical hitch and the replay doesn’t show on Mt Smart’s massive new high definition screen.

The Warriors attempt to right the ship with a nice set that forces the Knights to come off their line, but Trent Hodgkinson kicks a brilliant 40/20 to reverse the momentum and the Knights tack on another two points from a penalty goal. 26 minutes into the season and it’s 0-8 against one of the worst teams of all time. Mt Smart can barely breathe.

Without warning, the Knights morph from a half-decent team back into the Knights. They drop the ball, double down with a sloppy penalty and the Warriors march down field and score through Fusitua. The Knights drop the ball again, this time Solomone Kata scores. The Knights then put the kick-off dead on the full (man, they are bad) and Tui Lolohea does brilliantly to set up Fusitua’s second try.

Shaun Johnson hasn’t run at the line all half but in the final seconds he draws two defenders and produces a brilliant back-handed flick to set up Fusitua’s hat trick.

Four tries in 13 minutes. The air is back in the stadium. The game is fun again.

But Issac Luke doesn’t look right. He clutches his chest after a conversion attempt. Not good. Four minutes into the second half the worst is confirmed and Luke leaves the field. Simon Mannering hurts his neck and also leaves. With him goes a good chunk of the stadium’s available oxygen. The Knights break the line and score. Then they score again. Both conversions bounce back of a post, so the Warriors are clinging to a two-point lead. It’s grim, but the Warriors are hanging in and the Knights are out of options on the last tackle. They run it. Some bloke called Mitch Barnett grubbers, regathers and passes to another bloke called Nathan Ross, who dummies his way past Lolohea to score. The Warriors’ entire season has just been undone by two complete nobodies.

New captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has other ideas. The club’s star signing for 2016, Tuivasa-Sheck has been out of action for the best part of a year with a ruptured knee ligament. New coach Stephen Kearney has taken a punt and made the 23-year-old Aucklander his captain, replacing Ryan Hoffman. It looks a good call. The fullback’s inspirational efforts have been a shining beacon in an uneven, anxiety-ridden display.

His team may have turned in a masterclass of how not to kill off a football match, but Tuivasa-Sheck isn’t about to allow that to be the defining narrative of the day. He scoops up a kick in front of his posts and streaks through a gap. The break is shut down but the spark has been lit and three minutes later Hoffman scores a determined solo try.

The Warriors win. They’ve played like a panic attack wrapped in a personality disorder – but they’ve won.

Under the stands, at the post match press conference, Kearney is remarkably relaxed. He either doesn’t sweat, has a brilliantly effective antiperspirant or has changed into a fresh shirt.

Any win in the NRL is a good win, he says. They are hard to come by. And even harder to come by when your players are clearly tormented by the fear of defeat rather than inspired by the joy of victory. For these Warriors, there is no more terrifying prospect than history repeating.

“We’ve had five years of some tough times, you know,” says Kearney. “It is not something that is going to just disappear like that. Of course, there is going to be times when we find ourselves in positions where it seems similar to the past. For me, the encouraging part of that is that there were times like that today but the boys managed to not dig the hole too deep, and then dig themselves out of it.”

Next up for the Warriors is a home Friday night match against Melbourne Storm. Like the Warriors, the Storm are an expansion team, a frontier club tasked with spreading the rugby league gospel in an area where it is far from the dominant sporting code. But that is where the similarities end. Formed in 1998 – three years after the Warriors joined the NRL – the Storm are the benchmark for consistency, ruthlessness and professionalism. Unloved and unlovely, they know exactly who are they are.

Title contenders year-in, year-out, it’s easy to look at the Storm and figure that, if they can enjoy consistent success in an outpost like Melbourne, so too can the Warriors in Auckland. The Storm, though, enjoy two significant advantages. Backed by News Limited’s massive financial resources from its inception, the club has never known financial hardship or constraint. Just as crucially, it is based in Australia. Consequently, recruiting and retaining the game’s best talent has never been an issue.

For the Warriors, recruitment and retention is always a struggle. The type of player around whom dynasties can be built – Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston – simply will not countenance playing in Auckland. Those Aussies that do come charge a hefty premium, skewing the club’s wage bill. Often, they are over the hill before they arrive and their performances struggle to match the value of their contracts.

The Warriors face a constant bind – pay over the odds for an established Aussie star or make do with what they can produce themselves? The latter option is preferable, but also flawed. New Zealand’s domestic rugby league unearths great athletes but lacks the infrastructure and institutional excellence to consistently produce finished products. Resources are constantly raided, be it from rival NRL clubs or elite rugby union schools. That cuts both ways, with the Warriors recruiting heavily from First XV rugby in recent times. But schoolboy rugby stars take time to turn into bona fide NRL players and many, like Konrad Hurrell and Omar Slaimankhel, ultimately prove to be frustrating busts.

Under Jim Doyle, whose reign as chief executive began in 2015, the Warriors have adopted a ‘bring them home’ recruiting policy. This has seen the likes of Luke and Tuivasa-Sheck return to New Zealand already, with Tohu Harris to follow next year. The club also made a bold but unsuccessful play for Jason Taumalolo.

Targeting talented Kiwis who have had a few years in an Australian finishing school makes sense, however it is yet to produce results, much to Doyle’s surprise and dismay.

Into his third season in the job, Doyle has discovered what the likes of former football director and board member John Hart knew all too well - the formula for success in the NRL is horrendously elusive. Building a squad with the skill, courage, character and depth to better all 15 Australian clubs is an incredibly difficult feat.

The challenge the Warriors face is routinely underestimated. Expectations are set too high. Not a lot has to go wrong for promise to become despair.

Even when the Warriors are good, they face massive odds to actually win something. They will seldom play a finals match in their own country, let alone their home stadium, and will never play a grand final in friendly surrounds. Their games will have some of the least neutral referees on the planet, and their opponents will be very, very good. To put the challenge in context: will the Melbourne Rebels will one day come to New Zealand and win a Super Rugby grand final? Not any time soon, that’s for sure.

Sam Lisone looks on from the bench in the round two defeat by Melbourne Storm. Picture: Getty Images

Five days after their great escape against Newcastle, the Warriors are about to undergo a much sterner test of their mettle, against the Storm, in a storm.

Freedom of movement for its citizens is hardly a strength of Auckland’s at the best of times. With the city grinding to a soggy halt courtesy of a five-day weather bomb, a Friday night out at the footy was always going to be a hard sell. Just over 9000 people brave the despicable conditions for what should be a marquee fixture. That means another rough night for the cottage carparks – and a club that will have budgeted on a crowd closer to double that figure.

With two dud attendances in succession, the club’s operating budget will already be under stress. Form and weather are the two biggest factors driving attendance. Clearly, only one of those is within the club’s control.

To bring the crowds back, the Warriors need to start winning. And keep winning. The Storm have other ideas. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the match is that it occurs at all. The contest is testament to Mt Smart’s drainage, and the Storm’s ability to execute their awful strategy in even the most horrendous conditions.

The Storm play the most infuriating brand of football in the NRL but, man, they do it well. They slow down the play-the-ball just enough to disrupt the opposition’s flow, but not quite enough to attract the displeasure of the referee. At times, it is deeply cynical, but it’s highly effective. On attack, Craig Bellamy’s masterfully-drilled side are even more clinical, executing almost every play with a precision few, in any, teams can match.

The Warriors, though, have been a bit of bogey side for the Storm over the years, and things start well enough for them. After 28 minutes, the Storm lead a contest of impressive quality 12-10. It’s anybody’s game until Tuivasa-Sheck bravely attempts a cover tackle that puts his head in harm’s way. Briefly knocked out, the influential captain is helped to the sideline, where he will fail a head injury assessment test. His night is over – and so is his team’s.

The Warriors defend stoically – at one point repelling five consecutive sets as the Storm batter away at their line, but they can’t match Melbourne’s precision, and lack a spark in attack. They miss a crucial chance when Kata can’t ground a grubber over the try line, but the biggest difference between the teams is the kicking and kick pressure games, with Cronk producing a masterclass thanks in part to the Warriors’ failure to cut down his time and options.

There’s an air of inevitability to the 26-10 final scoreline, however Kearney isn’t overly distraught, and his still unruffled shirt might just be the driest thing in Auckland right now.

“[Melbourne] are the benchmark of the competition,” he says. “They taught us a few lessons tonight but I thought there were some really encouraging signs there.”

Those signs include the early season form of young five-eighth Mafoa'aeata Hingano. Although the sample of just four NRL matches is small, the 19-year-old looks to be a genuine talent. First choice five-eighth Kieran Foran has just been given final clearance by the NRL to resume playing, and if his mind and body play ball, the former Manly and Kiwis star will add another dimension to a Warriors side already showing signs of life. Hingano’s efforts so far, though, suggests everything will not necessarily swing on Foran’s successful return.

While a genuine self-belief might still be missing, there does appear to be more discipline and tenacity in defence about Kearney’s Warriors. The new coach’s calm, relaxed demeanour should also help reduce the anxiety levels that hopefully peaked about 60 minutes into the season.

Crucially, Kearney also seems to have a pretty decent handle on just who the Warriors are – and what they can become. A Kiwi legend forged in Australia as a player and a coach, Kearney’s background makes him uniquely placed to develop and implement a successful formula at club.

Are the Warriors a good team? Not yet. Will they become one? Kearney, at least, is confident they will.

“In terms of the finished product, Melbourne have been that way for quite some time,” Kearney says. “That’s why they play in the finals every year. For us, that is the journey we are on. In terms of the distance [away], I couldn’t tell you how far. But we’ll be getting there.”

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