Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Why Warriors are struggling

Simon Mannering of the Warriors. Photo / Getty Images
Simon Mannering of the Warriors. Photo / Getty Images

Over a quarter of the way into the NRL season, it is fair to say that not everything has gone to plan for the 2012 Warriors. While it is far too early to be making dire predictions, it is clear that so far they are not playing as expected. The symptoms are a mountain of errors and missed tackles and Michael Burgess assesses the reasons for their below par performances so far.

1 Soft year in 2011

Like every competition, the NRL goes in cycles and it is fair to say that 2011 was a soft year, in terms of overall quality.

The Titans and Eels were awful and the Roosters struggled for much of the year, while the Bulldogs and Raiders in particular struggled to live up to their pre-season billing.

After a spirited start, the Sharks won only seven games and Newcastle, North Queensland, Souths and Penrith were seriously average for much of the season.

This year, all those clubs (apart from perhaps the Eels) look much improved; traditional heavyweights such as the Storm and Broncos have gone to another level.

2 Injuries

While Brian McClennan put a brave face on their injury count at the start of the year, it has taken a toll.

The young forwards carried the load admirably in the first few weeks but struggled against the monsters from the Roosters and Raiders, with Michael Luck and Jacob Lillyman particularly missed.

Apart from his unrelenting effort and defensive workload, Luck is also one of best talkers in the team, especially on defence.

Without him, the team has become distinctly quiet. Lillyman was the 'follow me' leader of the front row foursome last year.

3 Patience

Towards the back end of last year, the Warriors developed a tremendous ability to stay in tight matches, demonstrating faith in their systems regardless of the scoreboard. This was especially evident in the finals matches against the Tigers and Storm.

In the past few weeks, the team has tended to look for the magic bullet to rescue themselves from significant deficits.

"I definitely feel we have started to chase the points a little bit," says Warriors captain Simon Mannering.

"Earlier in the season, we had the same problem of getting behind early but we didn't try to chase it.

"We completed a few sets, got down the other end and things happened off the back of that. It is just a matter of keeping that mentality."

"The boys need to understand you have to earn the win," says Nathan Friend. "We are not showing patience at the moment."

4 Mental minefield

Heading into round seven, the 2012 edition of the Warriors, laden with inexperienced young talent, have struggled with the mental intensity required in the NRL, either through slow starts or fatal mid-match fade-outs.

"In the past couple of weeks, we have probably mentally failed," admits Friend.

"We are competing in the arm wrestle and then, when they score a try or something doesn't go our way, we kind of throw the towel in. In a good side, you need to defend that error, come back and get into the grind and hopefully receive the ball in an attacking zone."

"We often start okay, then a couple of things don't go our way and we fall to bits for 10 to 15 minutes," adds Mannering. "It is about keeping focused."

5 Running dummy half

Friend has been a great signing in the No 9 jersey, with his steady delivery from dummy half and defensive prowess. But he is not as much of a running threat from dummy half as Shaun Berrigan and Aaron Heremaia were last season, meaning opposing teams can afford to target the men at first and second receiver. In a team already struggling to get on the front foot, it has heaped more pressure on Shaun Johnson and James Maloney.

6 Handling the hype

There is nothing wrong with optimism before the start of a season but this year things went into overdrive.

Instead of focusing on a good season and building step by step, the talk was of becoming NRL champions.

CEO Wayne Scurrah talked of going one better at the season launch, luminaries such as Andrew Johns tipped the Warriors to win the premiership and the build-up to the season-opening clash felt like the grand final all over again.

Owen Glenn's arrival as part owner only increased the pressure, as both he and John Watson pronounced their team would win the competition. "Within these walls, none of [the hype] was mentioned in terms of what we did last year or expectations or outside influences," says Mannering. "It was a fresh start; we couldn't rely on last year and every team gets better over the off season but I guess from the outside in, it might have looked like that."

Mannering may be correct but the impact of unadulterated hype on young players is almost always negative.

7 Youngsters

As a young player in the NRL, it is easy to shine for a few weeks, especially at the start of the season.

It is much harder to achieve consistency of performance across the year, as they come under increased scrutiny from opposition coaches and players. The Warriors have made much of their commitment to youth development; seven of the NRL squad had never played an NRL match before this season, while another seven are in just their second season at the top level. It will pay off - just maybe not this year.

8 Where are the Aussies?

Last year's squad had nine Australians in the mix, almost all of them experienced, solid campaigners. So far this year, there has often been just three Australians on the field (Maloney, Friend and Feleti Mateo) and sometimes just two, with Mateo spending time on the bench. While the aim to build a homegrown side is laudable and necessary, things have generally been rosier around Mt Smart way when the appropriate transtasman blend is reached.

9 Selections

In his first NRL season, McClennan would surely admit that he has erred with some of his personnel choices.

While Krisnan Inu may not be a long-term option, surely he was a better bet than debutant Ben Henry in round one in front of a huge crowd at Eden Park.

Henry has improved but many fans question why Henry, a forward in the Toyota Cup, is suddenly one of the first choice centres in the NRL squad.

There has also been the switching of Manu Vatuvei on to the opposite flank and uncertainty over whether to use Mateo from the start or off the bench.

Thrusting Jerome Ropati back in the team against the Bulldogs was costly, while starting last week's match with firepower like Sam Rapira, Ben Matulino, Mateo and Ukuma Ta'ai on the interchange bench was puzzling. It is important to say at this point that Ivan Cleary didn't settle on his top line-up until well into last season, so there is still plenty of time for McClennan.

- Herald on Sunday

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