Better use of the football, quality direction and improved fitness are among the reasons why the Warriors are enjoying a better start to the season than in 2009, writes Andrew Alderson.

There was a moment involving Lewis Brown against the Bulldogs - no, not that rather fortunate match-winning kick - which showed, perhaps more than anything else, why the Warriors are such a different side to last year.

It came when second-rower Brown made a break. When he was caught, instead of throwing a speculative pass, he held the ball.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? The basic protection of the ball.

From the ensuing set of tackles, Kevin Locke scored. It demonstrated two things: they are playing smarter and enjoying their football again after the previous year's lack of confidence, frustration and conservatism.

No-one, least of all unflappable coach Ivan Cleary, is trumpeting a Warriors' triumph this year. The season is only six games old today and the big Panthers forward pack (remember when they used to say that about the Warriors?) will be a handful.

But it was about this time last year the Warriors' season stopped looking bright and began a gloomy spiral towards the bottom reaches of the NRL table. They won their first two games, then lost the next three before winning - in round six at Mt Smart - against the Roosters.

But it was to be another five games before they tasted victory again and fans will not want to be reminded of the injuries, loss of confidence and rampant conservatism which saw a previously fluid points-scoring side stutter when they got into the scoring zone.

Now they have injuries aplenty all over again but this year, the team's mental strength looks healthier and the firepower looks fresher.

There were any number of reasons for 2009 - the Sonny Fai tragedy; the team didn't cope well with the two referees development; injuries (again); and mindset. They tried so hard to play out their sets of six, they forgot how to attack and, when they did, errors would inevitably follow.

Coach Ivan Cleary is conscious of wanting to play a more dynamic game than last year.

"I'm encouraging the boys to play what they see and pass the ball if possible; that's what is happening for the most part."

Brown's break and ball retention, leading to Locke's try, was a good example.

"We couldn't come up with a miracle ball but stayed smart," says hooker Aaron Heremaia. "That's what we're looking for."

The Warriors have always been strong on offloads and breaking tackles - in fact they top this year's NRL stats tables on both counts. But the key has been knowing when to deliver a final pass. Cleary accepts the odd one will be forced as a consequence.

"We pushed things from time to time against the Bulldogs but we still passed when the game was on the line in the last 20 minutes and were basically error-free."

Halfback James Maloney says you can't block such creativity and enthusiasm: "We control the ball as much as we can. Even though the errors are still there, we're not going to knock anyone for having a go at an offload. Second phase football is a great opportunity to score points."

Heremaia is more circumspect: "There were still passages where we threw the ball away, then went a bit stupid and had to pull the reins in. We've got to be wary. But it is a big thing with Ivan [Cleary] and Tony [assistant coach Iro]. They're pushing us to play with the football."

The young, relatively inexperienced team has enough forward strike power - with the progress of players like Russell Packer, Ben Matulino and Jeremy Latimore - to create plenty of offloading opportunities. That has been reinforced by some quality direction of play and slick finishers out wide.

The team has also compensated itself in the absence of on-field direction. With Steve Price, Simon Mannering and Micheal Luck injured, the likes of Brent Tate, Lance Hohaia and Sam Rapira have stepped into the breach, bolstered by the growth of Maloney and Heremaia.

The Warriors, going into today's game, are scoring on average 7.6 points per game more than their opposition. Last year, they were in negative figures - and again in 2008. Their growth this year is also reflected in tries scored, metres gained and line breaks.

Cleary says the emphasis has to be put on first phase ball to create the chance of an offload in the next phase.

"You've got to dent the opposition before you can have any benefit with the second phase ball. Otherwise they can be all over you and you go backwards."

Again, no-one is getting too far ahead of themselves. The level of injuries the Warriors are experiencing sorely tests depth and they could yet struggle with that. However, the strides this young team are making in terms of mastering the attitude and execution needed to succeed appears promising.

Not that there aren't weaknesses. Cleary wants his team to make inroads into opposition defences but the irony is that tackling has been the Warriors' worst phase. They have missed an average of 37 tackles a game to be fifth-worst in that NRL statistic - although they have countered that by limiting offloads and metres conceded.

Another reason for their resurgence in the face of injuries and inexperience this year is fitness. They have been down at halftime in only one game this season, the loss to Manly. They've also been able to hold on to win in all but one second half - the exception being the first up loss to the Titans.

"Better fitness has been a massive factor," says Heremaia. "Especially in the last 20 minutes against the Bulldogs who had all the momentum, they had scored the last 12 points and had a drop goal attempt but we hung in and finished strong. It's happened in a few games. The Warriors of old mightn't have done that."

Maloney agrees: "Even the two losses were still there for us to win. It was one of the toughest pre-seasons ever, from what I can gather. We've put in the hard work and it's showing now."

While a number of players have been mentioned in providing better on-field direction in the absence of the usual leaders, rookie Maloney has arguably been the player to step up most, aided in particular by his 28-point display against the Broncos.

"We're missing a lot of senior blokes so it's a good sign for the club," he says. "It's exciting to be doing my role properly. We are performing without key players."

"He was thrust into a role that in planning wasn't really there," says Cleary. "It's quite a baptism coming into the NRL as a premier halfback. However, it's been a necessity, and Lance Hohaia and Aaron Heremaia have done a great job helping him."