The New Zealand Warriors have missed the NRL's top eight, with their finals hopes dashed following a defeat to the Canberra Raiders last night. Michael Burgess analyses where the biggest improvement can be made in 2022.
The Warriors will go back to the drawing board, but with some definite priorities to work on ahead of the 2022 season.
The most glaring is game management, which was again critical in the 28-16 defeat to the Raiders on Friday night, which ended any flickering NRL finals hopes.
The Warriors looked on track for an impressive win when they led 16-0 after 35 minutes, but fell away badly from there, as Canberra clicked into gear, scoring five unanswered tries.
The final score probably flattered the Raiders, who were behind for most of the match and didn't take the lead until the 78th minute.
Despite being unable to build any momentum in the second half (they didn't have a play the ball inside the Raiders 22 until the 73rd minute), the Warriors defended gamely for long periods, and were not helped by the officials.
They didn't get a set restart across the match (Canberra had five), while the Raiders received a string of second-half penalties, some of them charitable at best.
But the Warriors were their own worst enemies, too often taking the wrong option or wrong decision at critical times. It was particularly apparent after Chad Townsend left the field in the 47th minute, when they seemed to lose all semblance of structure.
"We got into some situations that we didn't manage well and [the] pressure ends up telling," said coach Nathan Brown. "Our dumbness put us under a lot of pressure."
There were errors, pushed passes, poor kicks and cheap penalties. On consecutive occasions Marcelo Montoya was pinged for late hits on Raiders' fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (the first was marginal) on the kick chase, undoing solid sets.
It was tough on Montoya, who was otherwise one of the Warriors' best but summed up the night.
Brown was also frustrated with Reece Walsh's 76th minute field goal attempt, their eighth missed snap this season. It wasn't the best set-up – and Walsh was probably too far out – but why was the teenager taking the shot, with the experienced Nikorima on the field?
A set three minutes earlier summed up the indecision that has clouded this Warriors team in game-defining moments.
Halfback Sean O'Sullivan was caught with the ball out wide on the fourth tackle, with Walsh also on the left having trailed the play. Nikorima rushed to dummy half, but flung the pass right, where prop Bunty Afoa ended up at first receiver, before shovelling it to lock Bayley Sironen, who put in an ineffectual kick.
Game management has plagued this team since round five, when they couldn't put the Sea Eagles to bed, despite numerous chances, before Daly Cherry-Evans managed a last-second field goal.
That was the first of many turning points this season, where 13 Warriors' matches have been decided by a margin of six or less. The majority of those games (seven) have gone against them, ruining their top eight chances.
"It's been too common unfortunately," said Brown. "Hopefully, from the amount of times we have been in close games this year, there are some good lessons for us.
"Our close losses have come from many different reasons, not only one reason. It proves that we have got the makings of a good team but we have got some hard work to do."
The Warriors also had injury issues on Friday, losing Townsend and Wayde Egan. Josh Curran returned to the field when he otherwise wouldn't have, while Eliesa Katoa carried a foot problem into the match.
"[It] wasn't good for us," said Brown. "[At one stage] we had one bloke left on the bench. There are a few blokes unlikely for next week and one or two that did really well to play."