Paul Lewis: Player changes essential at Warriors

By Paul Lewis

A dejected Warriors captain Ryan Hoffman leads his players from the field. Photo / photosport.nz
A dejected Warriors captain Ryan Hoffman leads his players from the field. Photo / photosport.nz

So the Warriors sacked the coach but kept him. They added Warriors great Stacey Jones to the coaching roster and a new 'football advisory board', including Sir Graham Henry.

Owner Eric Watson - so beguiling when in charm mode - told Radio Sport there was also going to be change "in the whole mental skills approach".

New coach Stephen Kearney has another appointment to make in that area and Watson added: "Mental skills [coaches] are not magicians or gurus - they don't come in and fix things. If you think about what we are trying to do, it is all about the mental; about the psychology approach, bringing winners much closer to the senior players ... like Awen Guttenbeil [the only league person on the advisory board], Sir Graham Henry, Stacey Jones and Stephen Kearney himself."

Hang on a minute. Haven't the Warriors been working on mental strength with Dr Ceri Evans? The same Ceri Evans who worked closely with the All Blacks, credited with successfully helping them deal with the weight and stress of expectations.

Wasn't Henry appointed "mentor" to demoted coach Andrew McFadden this year? Isn't Stacey Jones already coaching at the Warriors, close enough to help imbue the senior squad with a winning attitude?

All of that was in place already and yet the season was often like watching a clown run across a minefield - you wanted to laugh but you knew there was nothing funny about it.

Time will tell whether these changes are a window to the future, or just window-dressing. Warriors management have been great at the grand gesture, the sweeping statement, selling merchandise and staging press conferences - just not so clever at getting results, as the last five finals-free years demonstrate.

The big unanswered question is whether any of the playing roster will go. Three coaches in five years (four if you count caretaker coach Tony Iro) is testimony to the fact that if you keep changing the driver but the car still doesn't go fast enough, chances are something's wrong with the car.

The consistent lament is the Warriors have the talent. After five years of no finals football, you have to query that. Player changes seem essential.

You'd bet Kearney will get the best out of the New Zealand players; there seems little chance of Issac Luke turning up a bit underdone next season. He has to find a replacement for the gritty Thomas Leuluai; Tui Lolohea was previously regarded as the long-term future at No 6 but his confidence seemed eroded by being played all round the backline this year. There is no way of telling whether sniffing round Kieran Foran will a) be successful or b) whether his off-field problems will see his availability curtailed anyway.

There are questions over Ryan Hoffman's captaincy, the slowing Manu Vatuvei, the puzzlingly quiet Ben Matulino (where have his offloads gone?) and veteran prop Jacob Lillyman. Only Bodene Thompson, Luke (in his second half of the season) and the tireless Simon Mannering can be regarded as of the quality needed to win the NRL in the forwards, based on this season.

Manly, after a poor season by their lofty standards, farewelled 17 players who either retired or were shipped out. Admittedly, Manly had a bad season in 2015, too. They sacked coach Geoff Toovey (he'd taken them to a preliminary final, a semifinal and a grand final after taking over in 2012) and 14 players.

Clearly the club have other issues as well but two cleanouts in two years could be seen as a bit of a panic or, at worst, a club entering a prolonged period of failure.

But isn't that where the Warriors are right now?

Of those 17 Manly players ditched or shifted or retired, 11 were off contract. The Warriors have few off contract this year so wholesale changes seem about as likely as the Chiefs hiring a new stripper at the end of next season. To make Manly-style changes now, Watson will have to get out the chequebook and start throwing some serious cabbage around.

Recruits with greater mental toughness are needed, and it will be intriguing to see how far the Warriors move in that direction.

Kearney, in the coaches' box on Friday night, must have wondered how he could get the Warriors up even to the same standard as the Broncos in their 26-20 loss in a fantastic finals match with the Cowboys. The Warriors are simply not in the same league.

If they are left with the same roster, the Warriors and their fans might have to get used to being the butt of humour like the old joke about Snow White taking packed lunches to the mine where the seven dwarfs are working. She discovers a cave-in and screams into the only opening she can find, hearing a weak voice reply: "Warriors win the NRL."

"Phew. At least Dopey's still alive," she thinks.

- Herald on Sunday

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