2018: The Warriors, in their second year under Stephen Kearney, are coming off a season in which they won just seven games and finished 13th only by virtue of having a superior points difference to the Tigers and Titans. Only the Knights won fewer games in 2017.
2018: The Warriors, who for so long have failed to build a team around their fleet footed playmaker Shaun Johnson, kick the recruitment into overdrive. Blake Green joins from Manly to help Johnson direct the side, while Kiwi internationals Tohu Harris, Adam Blair, Peta Hiku and Gerard Beale also join the squad.
2018. The Warriors, on the back of a Dally M Medal winning season from superstar fullback and captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, make the top eight with a 15 win, 9 loss record. The 8th place finish doesn’t truly reflect their improvement, as they challenge all season for a top 4 finish, and end up just one win short of first, thanks to a minor premiership race that was unprecedentedly close. They would ultimately fall well short in the first week of the finals, thanks in part to Tuivasa-Sheck getting injured, while Johnson went missing behind a forward pack that the Panthers mauled.
2019… The Warriors took two steps back.
While mathematically their season hopes remain alive, the Warriors’ capitulation at home to the Raiders this weekend ultimately puts the writing on the wall for a failed season. A run home of the Sea Eagles, Roosters, Sharks, Rabbitohs and Raiders (again!) doesn’t offer up any easy points, which could see the Warriors not only miss the eight, but tumble down the table. So, what went wrong? What caused the Warriors to regress after such a promising 2018?
The side looked set up to make incremental gains, hopefully challenging again for the top four and positioning themselves with the same elite clubs of 2018. Simon Mannering’s retirement freed up some salary, while Nathaniel Roache’s return to health bolstered their hooker stocks had Issac Luke not been able to negotiate a new deal. Tohu Harris had battled injuries late in 2018, but he returned to the back row as the side got healthy in the offseason. The tasks at hand were; sign a new prop to help beef up the pack (Leeson Ah Mau), lure some fringe guys to improve depth (Lachlan Burr and Patrick Herbert have fit that bill), and get Luke back on a team friendly deal, while continuing to build on the gains of the previous season.
Instead, the Warriors told James Gavet he wasn’t wanted, diminishing their front row depth, and leading to a number of games where Kearney decided to carry two reserves who would struggle to tip the scales over 90 kilograms. Shaun Johnson was alienated in such a way that he asked for a release (after Mason Lino had already departed for Newcastle), freeing up money to get Luke to return. It eventually would also allow them to sign Kodi Nikorima on a deal that seems like a massive overpay, especially as the Warriors didn’t appear to be bidding against anyone other than themselves. In the process, Chanel Harris-Tavita – the promising young half developed within the club – showed some signs of being first grade ready as the stop gap replacement for Johnson, only to then have his path blocked by Nikorima.
Kearney also made positional changes for… well, who knows why? Solomone Kata and Peta Hiku swapped sides. Combined with the absence of Johnson, that turned David Fusitu’a into nothing much more than a spectator. Ken Maumalo (one of the club’s few success stories) has taken advantage with his own league leading try haul, but the talents of Fusitu’a are wasted as Blake Green takes most of the attack left, while Kata (never one to possess great distribution skills) barely ever passed it when it came right. Kata would eventually be dropped for Herbert, and then released. Adam Blair, the aging middle forward who does his job setting the tone defensively, but whose best attacking days are behind him, started the season as an edge backrower ahead of the promising young Isaiah Papali’i. Another Harris injury resulted in both Blair and Papali’i starting, but the youngster looks to have gone backwards after an impressive rookie season. The muck around with his role and position can’t have helped.
Most of this stuff is hypothetical, with the injury to Harris and another devastating one for Nathaniel Roache not helping the Warriors’ cause. They may not have reached the top four, and they may not have even reached the eight. However, the decisions made both in administration, coaching and selection undid a lot of the 2018 foundation. After a big step forward had taken place, regression has well and truly set in.
This weekend’s flogging at the hands of an impressive Canberra side have shown that the same problems from the Johnson era Warriors still exist. The forward pack isn’t good enough on a consistent basis, often being bullied down the middle of the park by the top packs. Kearney’s bench selections remain baffling, as he included both Karl Lawton and Harris-Tavita, debutant Josh Curran and only one front rower in Bunty Afoa. That’s not the first time he’s named multiple small men either, including one game where Hayze Perham joined Jazz Tevaga and Roache on the bench.
So what happens in 2020? It’s hard to know how this team gets better. The backline should look as it does this season, with Green and Nikorima in the halves, and Patrick Herbert given a regular shot on the right alongside Fusitu’a. The pack will once again need bolstering though, with a quality hooker to replace Luke and one or two quality props needed to give this team a chance. Tohu Harris needs to again get healthy, while the contracts of an aging Adam Blair and the overpay on Nikorima won’t help matters. Luring quality forwards to New Zealand has seemed challenging under the constraints of the salary cap, so Cameron George has his work cut out for him. Otherwise, 2020 shapes as possibly another two steps back.
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