NRL: Brutal shock in store for fading young Warriors

By Steve Deane

The Warriors' transition from one of the strongest in the competition to second-half weaklings has been their most stark failing this year. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The Warriors' transition from one of the strongest in the competition to second-half weaklings has been their most stark failing this year. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Regardless of who becomes the next Warriors coach, the players can expect a flogging in the months ahead.

As they sipped their beer after closing out their 2012 campaign with yet another miserable fade-out against the Raiders on Sunday, the Warriors were warned about what is to come.

"I said to the boys, 'Go and enjoy the next couple of weeks because when you come back it is going to be tough'," departing workhorse Micheal Luck said.

"And it has to be. You have to be physically and mentally at your peak every week to be able to play in the NRL. It is probably arguable whether we were this year."

The team's transition from one of the strongest and fittest in the competition to second-half weaklings has been the most stark failing this year. Last season's grand final surge was based on the ability to grind and outlast opponents. Even with a brutal travel schedule thrown in, the Warriors nobbled the Tigers at the death in Sydney and outmuscled the well-rested Storm in Melbourne.

This season the Point Chev third team would have fancied their chances of running down the Warriors in the second half.

"It certainly looks like it," stand-in coach Tony Iro said when asked if fitness was an issue. "But, you know, confidence is a massive thing and we haven't got much at the moment. We did a good job for 40 minutes [on Sunday] but those nightmares from earlier in the year came back to haunt us again.

"If there is any consolation there were some real hard lessons learned by the young boys in the team."

The fitness issue is surprising. Highly regarded strength and conditioning manager Craig Walker rejected an overture to join Ivan Cleary at Penrith to remain at the Warriors. Under the Cleary-Walker regime the players' conditioning was seldom, if ever, questioned. Walker doesn't do interviews, but it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on what went wrong this year.

Under McClennan the pre-season conditioning window was shortened to allow more ball work, but as Luck suggested, that shouldn't be a factor once players have 20-odd matches under their belts.

Young players struggling to cope with the demands of the huge step-up from the U20s to a full NRL campaign would appear to be the most likely explanation for the collapses that torpedoed the second half of the season.

Raiders coach David Furner is well acquainted with the fade-out cycle that affects young players. Winners of the inaugural NYC competition in 2008, the Raiders are still struggling to get consistency from the brigade of young stars the club's development system churns out.

The Warriors of 2012 bear an eerie resemblance to the Raiders of 2011. Both sides specialised in giving up huge leads with remarkable ease. Last season, towards the end of a club record eight-match losing streak, the Raiders led the Cowboys 24-0 at home before rolling over to lose 40-24. Until the Warriors of 2012, such reversals were extremely rare.

"It's one of the hardest competitions in the world," Furner said. "For a young kid to be able to be up week-in week-out ... we've been through it and we still do. With the competition as hard as it is you've got to put experience on young shoulders and it is pretty hard."

There are no simple fixes for the Warriors. On Sunday, boom centre Konrad Hurrell was a shell of the strapping figure who started the season so explosively. Exciting prospect Carlos Tuimavave wilted under pressure, while star halfback Shaun Johnson had been playing so consistently poorly he wasn't even in the side. If Iro's words are anything to go by, that new school of Warriors stars are in for a crash course in old-school values.

"Usually you just bash it into them," Iro said. It was the only way to toughen players up.

Luck won't be there when the players reassemble next month, but he knows what is coming will separate the weak from the strong.

"In my time, I've seen a lot of guys who look a million bucks and then when things get really tough they fall out the back," Luck said. "I'm sure our guys are good enough to do it. Everyone in that shed is capable of being a very, very good NRL player."

Iro, too, still strongly believes these Warriors will deliver on their promise.

"This side has got the potential to be a really good footy team. But as I said, we have got a soft edge to us at the moment."

THE WORST COLLAPSES

1: R26 v Canberra, Mt Smart. From 22-6 up at halftime, the Warriors conceded 36 unanswered points to give Micheal Luck the ultimate rotten send-off.

2: R24 v Penrith, Mt Smart. 10-0 and 16-6 up against the lowly Panthers, the Warriors somehow contrived to play Brian McClennan out of a job with this 16-18 loss.

3: R21 v Manly, Perth. 22-6 up with 12 to go, the Warriors had won ... until suddenly they hadn't. Unspeakably awful final 12 minutes saw them lose 22-24.

4: R20 v Newcastle, Mt Smart. Three unanswered converted tries to the Warriors after 18 minutes; there was only one side going to win this ... Newcastle, 24-19!

5: R15 v Cronulla, Sydney. The collapse that started it all. The Warriors had a comfortable grip on the match until conceding two converted tries in the last seven minutes to lose 19-20.

- NZ Herald

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