Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Warriors props led the charge

Jacob Lillyman and the other Warriors props have played key roles in the team's revival. Photo / Getty Images
Jacob Lillyman and the other Warriors props have played key roles in the team's revival. Photo / Getty Images

If you want to understand the genesis of the Warriors turnaround, take a close look at the progress of their forward pack today.

Despite the deluge of analysis and complicated statistics that surround the NRL, some things haven't changed in 105 years of league.

Success still starts in the trenches.

While the Warriors debacle in Penrith was the spark for their remarkable renaissance, subtle changes to the game plan and structure have been major catalysts behind it.

In the week after that 62-6 defeat in round 10, the coaching staff and senior players realised something had to give. Aside from problems on defence, which were wide ranging, there were also issues in possession.

The team wasn't making ground; the once-feared Warriors pack was too often being stopped in their tracks. There was no muscle, no momentum, little motion. It meant the team was struggling to get out of their own territory, bend the defensive line and create space for the playmakers behind them.

How things have changed in the past month; the Warriors have averaged almost 1500 running metres per game, compared with around 1100 the month before. Off that has come more tries and line breaks, and better completion rates.

"[Warriors coach] Matt [Elliott] has allowed us to come up with a set that helps us to roll through the middle," says prop Jacob Lillyman. "Basically [we have] been given more of a free rein through the middle. Instead of attacking teams by going lateral and trying to get around them, which we had been doing for most of the year, Matt has got us using sets where it is just the big boys ramping up and hitting the ball at pace, with men in support."

"[As props], the four of us approached Matt and he was on board with it," says Ben Matulino. "He tampered with the game plan a bit and it seems to be working."

Before, the props were often running off one of the halves, with inside balls and cuts. Now, they have reverted back to the steamroller approach, straight off the ruck.

"We were struggling to get over 100 metres [individually] but now you get more time with the ball and choose where to go," says Matulino. "There are more places to run; when it is off the half, it is more in one direction."

It allows a more up-tempo game, better ruck speed and a greater chance of dominating the play-the-ball. Hooker Nathan Friend has also been directed to run more from dummy half, which keeps defences guessing and means the creative talents of players such as Shaun Johnson and Feleti Mateo have more space to thrive.

The other aspect of the revival has been a change in attitude, particularly on defence. They are hunting as a pack and showing genuine desperation to scramble and protect their tryline.

"We are doing the little things off the ball - the stuff that might go unnoticed by most but your team-mates recognise it," says Elijah Taylor. "Those things were missing earlier in the season: Things like kick pressure, inside pressure, getting the legs in the tackle, having three men in the tackle, wrestling for longer, resetting quicker, sprinting instead of jogging back. We are doing those now and getting the two points."

In hindsight, Elliott is now comfortable to talk about some contributing factors to the Penrith hiding.

"There was an emotional drain [after the Bulldogs game]; we had worked hard the six weeks prior for not much result," says Elliott. "The boys were flat and what I did was rip into them, telling them they needed to train harder and train more. Probably in hindsight, it would have been better to rip into them but tell them to go home. I also got the travel wrong - that is me being naive - we travelled the day before the Penrith game. There are no excuses but there were some contributing factors outside the players."

Then came Penrith and the 10 tries to one embarrassment, which led to the 'crisis meetings' and honesty sessions, which Elliott stresses were player driven.

"We convened and structured the meeting but the players ran it," says Elliott. "We have used that as a reference point ever since, on the benchmarks that they established. It made us grow up as a team."

- Herald on Sunday

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