League

Warriors praying young Aussie is next Maloney

Former Warriors beat writer Steve Deane recalls the day a cocky young James Maloney rolled into town.

Is Adam Keighran the next James Maloney?

That’s the question Warriors fans will be asking – and desperately hoping the answer turns out to be in the affirmative – as the NRL season swings into life this weekend.

Having parted company with Shaun Johnson – and looking a little clueless in the process – the Warriors are in need of some positive energy.

They’ll be desperately hoping a good chunk of that can come from a 21-year-old who had a promising junior career with the Bulldogs and impressed for the Panthers in reserve grade last year.

If Keighran’s CV sounds a little underwhelming for a dude replacing a veteran international, former Golden Boot winner and proven match winner, that’s because it is. But not having, well, any runs on the board at NRL level doesn’t mean Keighran isn’t a diamond in the rough.

The Warriors, in fact, have had decent success in scouting and recruiting young Aussies who haven’t quite made the grade across the ditch and handing them a chance to shine on the big stage.

Beloved fullback Brent Webb joined the club from the second tier Queensland Cup, and immediately proved he should have been on an NRL roster years earlier.

And then, of course, there was Maloney – the man the Warriors desperately need Keighran to be.

This column was lucky – if that’s the correct term – to conduct what was most likely the first interview with Maloney following his arrival in Auckland from the Melbourne Storm.

The circumstances were remarkably similar to those facing Keighran today. Stacey Jones had just retired and the Warriors had recruited an untested rookie - whose pathway at the Storm was well and truly blocked by Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk - to replace the club legend.

Big shoes to fill, and all that.

Not that that ever occurred to Maloney. Cocky would be both an under and overstatement of how Maloney projected heading into his first pre-season with the Warriors. He was, he stated matter of factly, at the club to play first grade. He had no doubts he’d start the season in the halves, and that he had what it took to be an NRL player.

His arrogance was actually quite refreshing, and reassuring.

His self-confidence, of course, proved to be entirely well-placed. We don’t need to relive Maloney’s CV here save to say that everywhere he has gone in his career, the club has won. Typically, those clubs have played grand finals, often enough winning them.

The key attribute Maloney delivers for his clubs is game management. He runs the show, and the show runs well. It’s that simple.

The Warriors probably would never admit it, but it was in fact Maloney who pretty much ended Johnson’s tenure at the club. That might be overly dramatizing it a touch, but there is no escaping the fact Maloney crushed Johnson in their head-to-head battle in the first round of last season’s playoffs.

The Warriors got off to a great start with two quick tries against the Panthers – and then Maloney simply took over. It would not have been lost on the Warriors coaching staff and management that their highest-paid, most-influential player was able to exert virtually no influence on the biggest match the club had played in six years.

Their response was to ask Johnson to prove himself before receiving a contract extension. Johnson wasn’t impressed, and it all went pear-shaped very fast. One suspects the Warriors may not overly miss a player disparagingly referred to as ‘princess’, but they also might regret their lack of class in they way they managed his exit - effectively telling a club legend not to let the door hit his arse on the way out.

In any case, the wheel has turned full circle. And, once again, the club has pinned its hopes on a young, unheralded Aussie.

They might not have said as much, but there is little doubt Keighran is the player the club is banking on to steady the ship in what shapes as a perilous 2019 campaign.

As bungled as the Johnson divorce was, no club releases a player of that stature without having at least a semblance of a backup plan. Keighran signed with the club last October. Johnson left a month later. As early as last December, this column was told Keighran was the heir apparent.

There are other options, most notably Junior Kiwis star Chanel Harris-Tavita. But Harris-Tavita is more of a classic Kiwi half in the mould of Johnson and Jones – brilliant on his feet and capable of producing unstoppable plays, like an outrageous back-heel grubber kick against the Junior Kangaroos last season.

But, without top-draw game management skills, that sort of ability only takes you so far – as even Johnson has discovered.

In a perfect world, Harris-Tavita will emerge as the X-factor playmaker alongside the steady hand of Keighran once the clock runs down on ageing journeyman Blake Green.

The world, though, is far from perfect. Both Keighran and Harris-Tavita are untested and unknown quantities at NRL level. In that scenario, the safe bet is to get with young Aussie – and hope like heck lightning strikes for the third time.

* The Warriors begin their NRL campaign with a match against the Bulldogs at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday. Kick off 5pm.

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