Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Putting fragile past to bed

The Warriors seem to be peaking at the right time, getting the job done in two 'must win' games during the past fortnight. Here, Ngani Laumape makes a break against the Raiders. Photo / Getty Images
The Warriors seem to be peaking at the right time, getting the job done in two 'must win' games during the past fortnight. Here, Ngani Laumape makes a break against the Raiders. Photo / Getty Images

There is a buzz growing around the Warriors, which historically means something might be about to go wrong.

The Warriors have struck rich form in the past few months and expectations are now increasing across the country.

The feeling was summed up by a non-sporting colleague earlier this week, when he stated he was "just about ready to jump on the Warriors bandwagon again".

At the moment, the team are expected to not just finish in the top eight, but also make an impression in the playoffs.

Historically, such expectations have been kryptonite for the Warriors. How many times have we seen a great performance followed by a flat loss and more reports about "rollercoaster seasons"?

Look at last year. The impressive round-20 win over the Storm had some pundits rating the team as top-four contenders and possible grand finalists. Seven days later, they lost to an unheralded Sharks side at Mt Smart and were then defeated by Manly and Penrith (at home).

Or what about the last two weeks of 2013? A demolition of the Raiders (50-16) was followed by a surprise 19-10 loss to the lowly Dragons.

"It's been well known that previously we didn't deal with expectation too well," said Warriors prop Jacob Lillyman. "Maybe it was complacency. We'd have a good win and think, 'we are there' and then probably lost a bit of work ethic."

Coach Andrew McFadden is aware of the problem.

"It's something we haven't really handled too well in the past - the expectation as it grows - so we have to acknowledge that," he said.

But the times, they are a changing. This team seem well-equipped to deal with the rising wave of optimism across the country, and have shown more starch in the last few months. They have faced 'must win' games during the past fortnight and got the job done.

"I think we will handle it a lot better now," Lillyman said. "Cappy [McFadden] doesn't let complacency sink in and we are always working hard, whether we beat someone by 50 points or we get beaten.

"The basic message is to be more diligent and work harder for these games we are expected to win, which has obviously been a problem in the past."

There is a harder edge around the club. There is less talk about potential and more focus on performance - and there is nowhere to hide.

"If you were in the video session [after the Cronulla game], you would've thought we had lost," said Thomas Leuluai. "There was no sugar-coating it at all. It's just being honest, being harsh with the boys and that kind of thing gets your focus back.

"Maybe before people would think, 'well, it's OK, as long as you get the win'. But it's not OK. You have to get the performance right and need to do it on every play."

"If we really want to be a good side, we have to learn to deal with [expectation] because that's what the top sides do," McFadden said. "You get distracted by that sometimes, so we just have to talk about it. That's part of our development as a club. It comes back to focusing on what matters and that is our training performance that leads into a game."

Today's match is a classic case in point. The Knights have shown mettle in recent weeks and upset the Storm in the last round. They have plenty of attacking threats, a highly-effective kicking game and a grinding, experienced pack. But they are also 14th on the ladder and the Warriors will be favoured to bank the two points.

"It's always a tough road trip and the Knights are well supported," said Lillyman. "But we are looking forward to it. We need to be prepared to go the whole 80 minutes and get the job done."

That, at least, is the expectation.

- Herald on Sunday

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