Year in Review: Rugby League

Warriors player Shaun Johnson. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Warriors player Shaun Johnson. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Rugby league continued its Jekyll (Warriors) and Hyde (Kiwis) existence in 2011. Michael Brown of APNZ assesses the year.

That was then:

On one end of the table, the Manly players tucked into their bacon and eggs with concentrated gazes on their faces. At the other end, the Warriors were taking pictures of themselves and pointing to people they recognised in the crowd as their breakfasts went cold. Even Manu Vatuvei, with more than 130 NRL games under his belt, was goofing around hiding behind a replica NRL trophy to make him look like Darth Vader.

Manly looked at home at the NRL grand final breakfast - it was only natural, given it was their third in the past five years - some of the Warriors did not. It was as if few could believe they were there, which was perhaps unsurprising given few many others couldn't work it out, either.

They certainly took the hard route.

The Warriors finished the regular season sixth but continued a golden late-season run all the way to Sydney. Although they couldn't topple a virtually-unstoppable Manly side in the final, losing 24-10, they briefly relegated Rugby World Cup stories to the inside pages as they captured the nation's imagination.

It was the Warriors' second appearance at the Big Show, nine years after their first. While there was great optimism around the 2002 team, this one holds arguably more potential because it doesn't look like it has reached its peak.

They didn't look capable of reaching any great heights earlier in 2011. After going down 24-18 to the Eels in the season opener in front of a record 38,405 at Eden Park, the first regular season home game played away from Mt Smart Stadium, they lost their next two. But an 18-14 defeat of the Storm in Melbourne in round seven ushered in a five-game winning streak that propelled the Warriors up the table.

Even the messy announcement Ivan Cleary was leaving the club at the end of the season to join Penrith, despite having one year remaining on his contract, didn't seem to distract the players and they finished the regular season in sixth.

They were smacked 40-10 by Brisbane in the first week of the finals but stunned a Wests Tigers side on a nine-game unbeaten streak 22-20 in the second round with a late and spectacular Krisnan Inu try. They then weathered the Storm in Melbourne, when they played superbly to beat the minor premiers 20-12 to set up a date with Manly.

The Warriors battled manfully in the final and it was a template the Kiwis could have employed. Even though New Zealand had every major trophy locked away in NZRL headquarters, they gave one back with barely a fight (Issac Luke did his best to start a few fights with his questionable tackling technique) with their inept display in the Four Nations.

They were poor as they were easily beaten by both Australia and England and only overcame a lowly Wales 36-0. There were some mitigating factors, like the absence of a number of regulars, but it was the first real time coach Stephen Kearney has come under pressure since taking over in 2008.

This is now

For many years, the Warriors have told us there is an abundance of talent coming through in New Zealand and that it would translate to success in the NRL. For many years, it didn't eventuate.

That all changed in 2011 and there's considerable optimism the Warriors can kick on and go one better next year. They will have to do it with a new coach, after Brian McClennan was installed to take over from Cleary. The former Kiwis coach is a popular appointment and, while it will take time for his style to bed in, he will have considerable resources to call on.

Not only does he have the likes of Shaun Johnson, Kevin Locke and Elijah Taylor, who were all standouts in 2011 despite their relative inexperience, but he will also have young but experienced players like Manu Vatuvei, Sam Rapira, Ben Matulino, Russell Packer, Simon Mannering and Jerome Ropati.

Add in another season from livewire Australian James Maloney - sadly it's only one more year after the five-eighth decided to join the Roosters in 2013 - and it's a team with few weaknesses.

The Warriors have tended to disappoint when expectations are high (they were 14th in 2009, a year after finishing one game shy of the grand final) but punters would do worse than slap a lazy fiver on them.

New Zealand will host next year's Anzac test for the first time since 1998, probably at Eden Park, and will play Australia again in the annual end-of-year match. The NZRL are hoping to add a couple of other international fixtures to next year's calendar in the build up to the 2013 World Cup in the UK.

Story of the Year

Ivan Cleary's son spills the beans: Ivan Cleary and the Warriors had rebutted claims Cleary was about to jump ship back to Sydney and said he would see out the final year of his contract. His 14-year-old son, however, was saying different things and reportedly told classmates the family was already planning their return across the Tasman. Cleary quit 10 days later.

Player of the Year

New Zealand has little trouble finding quality props and second-rowers but it's rare to produce a player with such vision and skills as Shaun Johnson. The 21-year-old had been touted as a phenomenon for a couple of years - Andrew Johns said in 2009 when Johnson was 18 he hadn't been so excited about a player for a long time - and in 2011 we saw he was. He's played only 15 NRL games but was a significant reason behind the Warriors' march to the grand final and the match-winning try he set up for Lewis Brown against Melbourne was stupendous. Encouragingly, he recently re-singed with the Warriors until the end of 2014.

Quote of the Year

"Mate, you're kidding, aren't you? Keep looking."

James Maloney relays his reaction to his agent when the Warriors circled for the then unknown player in 2009. Unsurprisingly, he will soon fly the coup after signing for the Roosters in 2013.


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