Warriors’ joyless season comes to merciful end

Reasons to be cheerless - part nine.

Having rounded out a season of woe by doing what they do best – making a crappy Wests Tigers team look like title contenders – the Warriors can now thankfully retreat under a rock and lick their wounds, both physical and mental.

The 2017 NRL season was a train wreck for the New Zealand franchise. Hope turned to despair. Despair turned into disdain. Completing the cycle of sporting irrelevance, disdain morphed into ambivalence. And here we are, nursing a record nine-match losing run.

A finish that now seemed inevitable was, for much of the early going, far from it.

New coach Steven Kearney’s Warriors started out shakily with a nervy win over Newcastle, promptly lost three matches in a row to better teams, and then found their feet with two wins to round out the opening quarter of the season at 3-3.

For a club that always starts slowly, that’s actually a pretty decent opening stanza.

The 22-10 round six victory over the Eels was so comprehensive that it was fairly easy to predict that one of the two teams would finish fourth while the other would fade to 13th. But it wasn’t quite so obvious that the team making the top four would be the Eels.

Good enough to beat the best on their day, the Warriors simply weren’t capable of having their day often enough.

Understandable defeats in Melbourne and Canberra preceded a showdown with the Roosters at Mt Smart. With their backs to the wall, the Warriors produced their best performance of the season to pip the Roosters 14-13. It would be one of just seven defeats the Roosters would suffer on their way to a second-placed finish.

For the Warriors, the win was entirely thanks to a stoic defensive display of the type that would typify the entire next 40 minutes of their season.

Leading 26-6 at halftime at Penrith’s Pepper Stadium, the Warriors appeared to have melded an improved defensive focus and better discipline and ball control with a more fluid attacking game. Hope sprang, but it wasn’t eternal, lasting, in fact, just 12 minutes – the amount of time it took the Panthers to run in 24 unanswered points.

Inexplicably, the Warriors had fallen off a cliff. That happens in the NRL. Just over 24 hours later, the Storm would concede 38 points at home to the hapless Titans in a shock loss. For a robust outfit such as Melbourne, an occasional shocker typically resolves as a mere flesh wound: take two harden-up pills and call us in September. For the Warriors, the injuries inflicted in Penrith were fatal.

Like a sandcastle on the beach with the tide licking at the ramparts, their confidence began to ebb away.

Dreadful in Hamilton in a ‘home’ loss to Dragons, the Warriors would bounce back with a win against the Origin-depleted Broncos. That result would mean the Warriors would have posted victories against three of the competition’s top four clubs come finals time – a statistic that will provide scant consolation to the club’s fans. Good enough to beat the best on their day, the Warriors simply weren’t capable of having their day often enough.

The Warriors' round 16 victory over the Bulldogs will go down in history as the bookend to a record losing streak that currently sits at nine at the end of the National Rugby League's regular season. Photo: Getty Images

By round 16, the Warriors had clawed their way into the top eight thanks to consecutive wins over the Titans and Bulldogs. But, rather than being the start of something encouraging, that convincing 21-14 victory over the Bulldogs will go down in history as the bookend to a record losing streak that currently sits at nine.

Ryan Hoffman, the big-money signing from Melbourne, departs after three years of frustration, and the Kieran Foran rehabilitation project has come to an end.

Much has happened over that span. The club renamed Mt Smart as Manu Vatuvei stadium in celebration of getting its costly legendary winger off its books; the occasion dampened by a defeat to Penrith and a nasty knee injury to Shaun Johnson.

Another club legend, Ben Matulino, had already confirmed his departure, while stalwart prop Jacob Lillyman has not resigned for 2018. Ryan Hoffman, the big-money signing from Melbourne, departs after three years of frustration, and the Kieran Foran rehabilitation project has come to an end.

That’s a heck of a lot of talent that won’t be returning in 2018.

Off-setting that, various reports suggest, will be the arrival of Adam Blair – a 31-year-old with 263 NRL games and 39 tests on the clock. Oh – and Zac Santo, a utility back with three NRL appearances across four seasons with the Cowboys and Raiders.

Newsroom began this season by traipsing around Mt Smart Stadium looking for a pulse at a club that had failed to qualify for the NRL finals in five straight seasons. There were signs of life, but they proved fleeting.

With his strategy of recruiting big-name stars who have enjoyed success elsewhere – Hoffman, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Foran, Issac Luke et al - having failed, chief executive Jim Doyle has moved upstairs to the board’s executive chairmanship, presumably away from the day-to-day decision making.

It will have stung Doyle that he was unable to engineer a revival from the coal face, but at least he hasn’t attempted to hide from the obvious: many of his decisions didn’t work out, and the time to hand over the reins had clearly arrived.

His replacement, Cameron George, at least won’t be overburdened by expectation in the early days of his regime.

If the club has had one saving grace in recent years it has been its stability off the field thanks to the largely uncontroversial ownership of Eric Watson. With Watson now looking for the exit door, that situation won’t necessarily exist for too much longer.

Change is coming to Mt Smart. Given the Warriors' fortunes on the field, there seems little reason to fear it.

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