Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Seven steps to improve a team

Recruiting James Maloney paid off big-time. Photo / NZPA
Recruiting James Maloney paid off big-time. Photo / NZPA

After a disastrous season, the new coach at the Warriors will have no shortage of things to fix. Michael Burgess highlights the areas in most urgent need of repair.

1. Master the mental game

Even in the good times this year (and there were some) one thing remained constant across every Warriors match: an inability to concentrate for 80 minutes, or even for long periods, which inevitably proved fatal on the scoreboard. It was evident from the first match in Eden Park sunshine; the Warriors were the better side but Manly snuck home, mostly as a result of Warrior fadeouts. We don't expect State of Origin-like intensity the whole match but we do expect more. There is no quick fix. The All Blacks made it a priority four years ago and only now feel they have a handle on this difficult science. They have gone as far as to adjust the language used on field (and before a game), where the focus is on being specific descriptive language rather than motivational platitudes. While there is an acknowledgement some Warriors need more help in this area than others, there needs to be serious, concentrated work on the mental side of the game on an individual and collective basis.

2. Find a football manager

As much as the new coach is important, the appointment of a football operations manager is just as vital. It was a major element lacking around Mt Smart this year. Someone like Andrew Gee (Broncos), Alan Thompson (Bulldogs) or Frank Ponissi (Storm); a person who is the link between the strength and conditioning, medical, sports science and football departments as well as a sounding board for the coaching staff and management. Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah says a football manager will be appointed in conjunction with the new coach, though a decision is yet to be made as to whether the role would sit next to or above the coach in the chain of command.

3. Revive off-field resources

Heading into 2013, there can be no more cutting corners in terms of off-field resources. Apart from staff, investment is needed in the areas of recovery, rehabilitation and sports science. At the Bulldogs, one of Des Hasler's staff is specifically employed to work on recovery and rehabilitation, the club fully aware of the value of getting players back on the park as quickly as possible. It may be just down to luck but the Bulldogs have been strangely unaffected by long-term injuries this year. Not all of this is the Auckland club's fault; the facilities available at dilapidated Mt Smart can't be compared with the state of the art equipment available at the Roosters, Storm or Bulldogs. As an example, the Warriors still have their icebaths in giant plastic bins while many other clubs have purpose built baths within their change area. Owen Glenn and Eric Watson signalled their intentions in this area in July and the investment can't come soon enough.

4. Advanced Australian fare

While the development focus is noble (and potentially successful) there still needs to be a core of good Australian players at the club over the next two to three seasons. At times this year there were just three Australians in the side and that simply isn't enough. Their background of tough, competitive, high quality football from their school days through to the juniors produces an invaluable mix and there is a decent correlation between imports and success. In each of the seven years the Warriors have made the top eight, they averaged nine Australians in their NRL squad. The Australian influence was undeniable in their most successful campaigns - 10 in 2002 (grand final), six in 2003 (preliminary final), 10 in 2008 (preliminary final) and eight last year (grand final).

There will be just five Australians at Mt Smart in 2013 (Dane Nielsen, Todd Lowrie, Jacob Lillyman, Feleti Mateo and Nathan Friend) which is the lowest number since 1997 (two) and 1998 (one).

5. Rebuild the Vulcans

The Vulcans are the forgotten team of the Warriors but one of the keys to the future. If we learnt anything from 2012, it is that the step from under-20s to first grade is a massive one, to be attempted with utmost caution. The template was seen in 2010 and 2011, when Ivan Cleary resisted massive pressure to throw Shaun Johnson into the NRL, consistently maintaining that he wasn't ready. He was eventually used in round 13 of 2011, after spending more than 18 months in the NRL squad. Even though it is not as glamorous as the Toyota Cup, the Vulcans need to be the bridge between the Juniors and the NRL.

6. Find the next Maloney

Granted, this is easier said than done. James Maloney was a gamble that paid off spectacularly (he arrived at Mt Smart with just four NRL games to his credit) while others such as Joel Moon, Denan Kemp and Matt Jobson less so. But it seems logical (and easier) to target young Australian players on the cusp of first grade who are dying for a shot at the NRL. Like the halfback stuck behind Johnathan Thurston at the Cowboys, or the five eighth waiting for Benji Marshall to move on at the Tigers. The Warriors would have to improve their Australian scouting network but it seems more viable and significantly cheaper than trying to lure top Australians here once they have made it.

7. Focus on fitness

Being one of the fittest teams in the NRL should be a minimum requirement. The Warriors have experimented with different pre-season options before (in 2004 they focussed on bulk and size, in 2009 on wrestling and strength). This year they seemed to struggle aerobically, especially late in games, after they failed to build the fitness base at the start of the season, switching into a skills focus a month earlier than normal.

- Herald on Sunday

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