NRL: Chokers tag becoming big issue for Warriors

By Michael Brown

Prop Jacob Lillyman admits being run down by the opposition has become heartbreaking for the Warriors. Photo / Getty Images
Prop Jacob Lillyman admits being run down by the opposition has become heartbreaking for the Warriors. Photo / Getty Images

It's something that afflicted All Blacks teams at World Cups for close to two decades and now the Warriors are experiencing their own performance anxiety that threatens to ruin their season.

Over the past six matches the Warriors have led heading into the last 12 minutes. Twice they have held on to win, just, but on four occasions they have leaked points that resulted in miserable defeats.

The combined score of the last 10 minutes of those games is 44-3. That's 44 for the opposition, three for the Warriors. For the last 20 minutes, it reads 66-17.

The upshot is they have won just two of nine games this season and look enviously to the middle of the table where they probably think they should be positioned.

"It's heartbreaking," prop Jacob Lillyman says. "Every time it's happened, words can't express how disappointed you feel.

It's one thing to lose a game when you're outplayed but when you are in positions to win games and at the death they come from behind and beat you, they are the hardest ones to take."

It's a problem that's too difficult to ignore and one that dominates thinking around Mt Smart Stadium. Their one saving grace is they are only four points outside the top eight.

"It's an issue and, unless we walk into it knowingly and with a strong will to deal with it ... well, it's not going to go away," Warriors coach Matt Elliott says, "because it hasn't gone away in six weeks. It's about mindset and we need to address it."

The All Blacks spent countless hours and dollars on their issues when it came to the knockout stages at Rugby World Cups. They overcame it to some degree in 2011 when they won their first World Cup since 1987 but it could have been quite different considering they just held on in the final to beat France 8-7.

"Most of that game was played in a way that we were on the verge of choking all the way through because the pressure of expectation and fear of not meeting those expectations kicked in," says Gary Hermansson, who last year went to his fourth Olympics as the New Zealand team sports psychologist. "Even though they did a lot of work leading up to it, the temptation is to get worried about losing it again. This time they managed to hold on."

The Warriors have struggled to do that. Against the Titans, for instance, they led 24-12 heading into that last 11 minutes but conceded two converted tries and only a late field goal to Shaun Johnson proved the difference.

Last weekend against the Bulldogs was a little different. They led 16-0 in the first half but were overrun by a side playing the sort of form that got them to last year's NRL grand final.

"I didn't see us freezing so much," Elliott says. "That was the best half of footy played against us this season."

The Warriors have played some good football this season, too, but invariably not in the final quarter of games. They tend to stop playing and invite trouble.

Captain Simon Mannering cringes a little when the topic of their inability to close out games crops up.

"The talking about it," he starts. "I feel if you talk about it all time, you make it an issue. We know what we need to do, it's just a matter of applying it."

The problem is, they do it in public. Players and coaches can talk all they like about performance and "controlling the controllables" but winning is the most important currency. Careers, employment, money and reputations rely on it.

"There's a lot of inbuilt pressure," Hermansson says. "That's where mental toughness comes in."

It's clearly a big challenge for the Warriors, and one they will confront again tomorrow when they take on the Panthers in Penrith, but it's something they need to overcome.

Leaking points

Points in final 10 minutes of last six games

v Cowboys: 2-6 (W20-18)

v Souths: 0-0 (L24-22)

v Raiders: 0-6 (L20-16)

v Storm: 0-12 (L28-18)

v Titans: 1-8 (W25-24)

v Bulldogs: 0-12 (L24-16)

Overall: 3-44 (W2, L4)

Penrith v Warriors

Centrebet Stadium, 9.30 tonight

Penrith: Matt Moylan, Travis Robinson, Lewis Brown, Dean Whare, David Simmons, Isaac John, Luke Walsh, Nigel Plum, K. Kingston (c), Tim Grant, Sika Manu, Matt Robinson, Adam Docker
Reserves: James Segeyaro, Sam Anderson, Mose Masoe, Clint Newton.

Warriors: Glen Fisiiahi, Bill Tupou, Ben Henry, Carlos Tuimavave, Manu Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson, Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Russell Packer, Feleti Mateo, S Mannering (c), Todd Lowrie
Reserves: Ben Matulino, Jacob Lillyman, Elijah Taylor, Pita Godinet, Suaia Matagi.

- APNZ

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