Perhaps more than any other time in his career, Jerome Ropati knows he is playing for his future.
Ropati, who turned out at fullback last night, is arguably the highest-profile Warrior coming off contract at the end of 2012. With every solid game and injury-free week, his prospects will grow; conversely, any more spells on the sideline and doubts will resurface.
"When I signed three years ago, I was in good shape and in good form but it is a different situation right now," says Ropati. "I've had my injuries and there are a lot of players in good form. I understand that Bluey really wants some consistency from me. If I can stay on the field, then I think that the form will take care of itself."
Often players prefer not to play with contract question marks hanging over their head but the 27-year-old accepts his reality.
"I don't mind playing with it [up in the air] to be honest," admits Ropati. "I understand there are risks to holding off a little bit and hoping that you get into good form and increase the chances of a good contract. However if the opposite goes and I get injured then the contract is not going to be so hot. But that is reality - I need to earn my right to earn and sign on with the club."
Ropati has no thoughts of England or any other NRL club and is confident he remains in McClennan's plans.
"He wants me to stick around and I just have to see what the club has got," says Ropati. "Ideally I would like to stay here and that is the only option I have got on my mind unless the club says otherwise." After the hot-stepping skills of Kevin Locke and the quicksilver Glen Fisiiahi, Ropati certainly brings a different skill set to the number one jersey. He is not as quick as either of the younger players but offers pure physical presence. He is confident under the high ball, knows when to chime into the line, is a good communicator and, as he showed against Souths, is not afraid to put his body on the line on kick returns. Indeed, he brought back memories of some of Matthew Ridge's Kamikaze-esque charges for Manly and the Kiwis.
"One of the main things is to return the ball back as best as I can," says Ropati. "For our team, set starts are very important to get our forwards into play. Only then can we play on the back of James [Maloney] and Shaun [Johnson]. I'm getting more comfortable there but there is still a lot to learn."
Ropati is also happy to play a mentor role in the backline among the many youngsters at Mt Smart this year.
"It's a challenge in itself," says Ropati. "They look to you to be on the field and lead in that way.
"The biggest question is whether they are able to stay consistent week in and week out. Ben [Henry] does a fantastic job and has a mature head for a young player. Konrad [Hurrell] is playing NRL in just his second season [of league] - of course he is going to struggle with the pace and the week-to-week grind but he is making huge improvements. I try to help them here and there in terms of game decisions and the more we play the better the communication becomes. It's not the best at the moment but is something we have to strive to improve upon."
Meanwhile, the brains trust at Warriors HQ is in recruitment mode as the club begins to assess the shape of its 2013 squad. McClennan, John Ackland, Wayne Scurrah, Dean Bell and Tony Iro meet every week to discuss prospects and potential targets.
"We are looking at who is on the market and how much it costs to get those players, as opposed to what is coming through," says McClennan. "We are a development club and that is the path we have chosen to take. We feel it is bearing fruit."
Despite the focus on building from within, it is also an accepted reality that the club needs to sign some experienced Australians, especially with the departure of Micheal Luck and James Maloney and the ongoing issues at centre. Development from within is admirable but alone will not satisfy the short term demands of the various stakeholders.
"We have to pay a premium [for Australians] and it is a sad reality [but] it is what happens," says McClennan. "The main thing is that when you have a salary cap, you have to manage it. You can't pay too much for one player. That might affect your ability to hold onto a kid or offer an extension to someone who is progressing well in your system.
"If you spend too much on one player it might affect, say, three of your younger players who may turn out to be the Manu Vatuveis of the team. A balance is required, yes, as long as they come at the right price."By Michael Burgess Email Michael