As another failed campaign drags to a conclusion the Warriors and their fans are once again picking over the bones of where it all went wrong.
The answer is simple yet complicated. They haven't made the finals because the roster isn't good enough. That's the simple part. The harder part is trying to establish why it isn't good enough or what needs to be done to fix it.
All clubs spend give or take the same amount on talent but the NRL ladder shows which teams got that roster balance right and which didn't. The salary cap is a complex beast and those clubs that figure it out flourish while those that don't struggle. Well maybe some of them cheat but let's leave that out for the purpose of this exercise.
The salary cap for 2017 was $7m and per NRL rules clubs must spend a minimum of 90% of that figure - so all teams are spending $6,300,000-$7,000,000 per season. If a team pays overs for a certain player, in essence that cap comes down - not in numerical value but in terms of real value compared to rivals. Likewise if a team signs an under-valued player who then plays above his contract-rate that cap is expanded in terms of real value.
So when the Warriors signed players like Michael Luck and James Maloney on small salaries and then watched them perform at a much higher level they expanded their cap in effect. However the opposite can be said with signings like Sam Tomkins. When Roger Tuivasa-Sheck replaced Tomkins at the Warriors the club actually managed to get a better fullback for less money and expanded their real cap.
When you look through the 2017 roster there are a number of players commanding big chunks of cap space that haven't delivered true value on their contract - Manu Vatuvei, Ben Matulino, Issac Luke, Jacob Lillyman, Shaun Johnson and Ryan Hoffman to name a few obvious ones. Sure James Gavet, Blake Ayshford, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Kieran Foran (thanks to his bargain contract) have probably over-delivered. End result is the Warriors haven't got value out of their cap. They've paid as much as teams that will fight out the premiership but don't have much to show for it.
Then you throw in the variables that impact on real cap value and this is where it really hurts for the Warriors. Being the only club outside of Australia and with a reputation of not exactly being a place to kick-start an NRL career, the Warriors have had trouble recruiting top talent from Australia. To get players they have probably had to pay overs, hurting their true salary cap.
Not fair you might say. Not exactly - the Warriors have a major advantage in that they are the only team in New Zealand. Local lads will have incentives to want to stay in New Zealand to play their footy - family, relationships, comfortable lifestyle - there are plenty of reasons. Simon Mannering has never really even looked overseas properly. The Warriors should really be getting a home town discount on home grown players that should offset the cost of recruiting from overseas.
Wayne Scurrah's Warriors outfit figured that out a decade or more ago. Problem is the development has been terrible and that is the key reason why the Warriors haven't enjoyed more success in recent years. The Warriors have been a development club that simply hasn't spat out NRL-ready first graders, which is the key way to balance your roster and manage your salary cap.
They won Under 20s titles when no-one else cared. They relied on bigger bodies running over smaller ones and played players with an eye to winning rather than developing but that didn't spit out players ready for first grade.
When I look through the players that have come through the system in recent seasons it is easy to identify major flaws in all of them. Sam Lisone, Albert Vete, Konrad Hurrell, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo, David Fusitua, Tui Lolohea and even Shaun Johnson were well short of first grade quality in certain areas when they were given their debuts. Yes, there is raw talent in all of those players but first grade isn't the place to refine one's game - that is what other clubs did better than the Warriors while the club was racking up U20 titles. So while they got the home town discount on those players they were actually paying first grade rates for players that weren't offering a full first grade set of skills. The financial benefit in terms of real cap space was nullified.
The reality is the Warriors actually haven't poured enough resources into player development at a lower level. They haven't recruited the best types of juniors and there have been far too many kids "filling jerseys" rather than actually being part of the long-term solution.
Another big question is around whether local kids are getting taught the right skills in junior footy before the Warriors even take a look at them. Why is it that the Blues and Warriors struggle so much despite having the biggest footy nursey in the country? Too many Pacific Islanders? I hear that comment a lot. While not particularly nice it is a point that should be examined even if to rule it out. The percentage of Pasifika players playing in both competitions has risen dramatically over the last two decades - there doesn't seem to be an issue at other clubs that have more Pasifika talent than others. Auckland seems to be common theme there rather than race. I think we can effectively rule out the race concept. But why do Auckland players seem so much more flawed than others? Maybe that is something worth putting some serious thought into at another time.
So the Warriors haven't received any real benefit from developing their own talent despite relying on it - queue the defensive lapses, the inconsistency etc. Players in first grade, on first grade contracts, are playing catch-up, having to learn how to be professional footy players while the club is trying unsuccessfully to sign better players from overseas and having to blow the budget getting players that can't deliver as much as they need them to. Coaches are having to teach rather than focusing on coming up with strategies and techniques. That shouldn't happen at NRL level.
A way around this in the short term is to balance some local talent by recruiting juniors from Australia. Until now the Warriors haven't had the resources to do that effectively. While they might have a rich owner in Eric Watson the club hasn't been given unlimited finances to spend on the football department. In fact the Warriors have actually struggled to balance the books each year and so spending on junior development, scouting, mental skills etc has actually been a luxury they haven't been able to afford. Crazy when the club has claimed to be a development club for so long. The previous regime didn't always spend the full salary cap - using what could have been spent on players to balance the business books.
This is all changing under Jim Doyle's watch. The Under 20s are now a feeder team, with the core task of producing NRL-ready talent. More resources are being spent on player development and scouting as the commercial aspects of the club improves. As an example the club is likely to invest in getting some of their players playing in the SG Ball competition - an Under 18 competition that rival clubs have benefitted from over the years. In time these changes in tactic will produce some fruit but it isn't helping them right now.
There lies the problem for Doyle and coach Stephen Kearney. To get this club where it needs to be might actually take a number of years of work, putting in the appropriate building blocks and getting that real cap value back to even or better. In Kearney they have a methodical and determined character, who has seen first-hand how clubs should be run during his time in Melbourne and Brisbane and someone who could see this through.
Kearney has already started the re-build. Look at the Warriors forwards this season. Gone for next year are Ben Matulino, Jacob Lillyman, Ryan Hoffman, Charlie Gubb and Bodene Thompson. James Gavet earned a new contract while Albert Vete is cost-effective. Clearly Kearney recognised the team's forward pack was poor.
But fans have been waiting far too long for a competitive Warriors outfit. Already many are calling for Kearney's head - as if another coaching change would sort this mess out. The crowds have declined all season and you get the feeling less people are paying attention to the Warriors at the moment. Sponsorship revenue and gate takings are needed to help fund the improvements and so Doyle is left with a balancing act of weighing up the methodical rebuild with the risky notion of quick fix attempts.
The methodical one is the smart play but that relies on patience from everyone. Patience that has long run out when it comes to the Warriors.