When the Warriors returned to their changing rooms after Saturday’s humbling at the hands of the Broncos, Shaun Johnson got to his feet to address the group.
Heads were down, with regret and disappointment in the air, after the savage 42-12 defeat in the preliminary final, where the Warriors had failed to capitalise on a promising start, with two tries in the opening 11 minutes, and were gradually overwhelmed.
The team knew they hadn’t played to their potential - nowhere near it - but Johnson had an important message to pass on. As well as reminding the squad how far they had come, he wanted to remember the architect of their turnaround this year, paying a special tribute to coach Andrew Webster on behalf of the team.
“It’s quite easy for the head coach to always thank everyone else,” explained Johnson. “[It was important] that he heard from the playing group how much we value him. The reason we are in this position is because of him... and the culture that he has set, the environment that he has created. Every day we walk in, he is the first person we see and the last person that we see [when we leave].”
Johnson said the qualities of Webster came to the fore during a tough mid-season run when they dropped four of five matches. It wasn’t an easy time for the rookie coach but he never wavered.
“I’ve been so impressed,” said Johnson. “Obviously it is easy to think you can carry yourself well when your team is winning, but we went through a period where we lost three on the trot and he didn’t change. I was thinking, ‘man this guy has got it’, he kept his level right there and it was exactly what this group needed. I’ve got nothing but admiration for Webby and his coaching staff and Robbo [Mark Robinson, Warriors owner] and Cam [George, Warriors CEO] for the standard that they have set. We all know that success starts at the top and it filters down.”
Like the rest of the team, Johnson was proud of their season, though it didn’t seem like much consolation as the players enjoyed a quiet beer, had injuries examined and packed their bags for the last time. The hurt was intensified by the noise and celebrations coming from the Broncos’ sheds, just along the corridor at Suncorp Stadium.
“I don’t think we showed through our performance exactly where we are at as a footy side, that is probably the most disappointing thing,” said Johnson. “They were really good, played fast, played physical, offloaded the footy. That in turn made our attack look a little different, just through fatigue and those extra efforts when a side gets an offload on you.”
The blatant forward pass for Brisbane’s fifth try in the 54th minute - which came at a crucial time, extending their lead to 30-12 - was “frustrating” but nothing more than that.
“There were so many little moments that we could have got right,” said Johnson.
Their defence was out of shape, particularly on the right edge, while Reece Walsh terrorised them on both sides. They couldn’t maintain their line speed, couldn’t shut down the second phase and couldn’t stop the constant Brisbane momentum.
They looked effective inside the Brisbane 22 but their visits were rare. It didn’t help with some calls - with Adam Pompey’s sin-binning after a similar transgression by Kotoni Staggs was ignored - as well as their failure to land a single conversion. The Broncos were irresistible, while too many Warriors were well down on their peak.
“It definitely wasn’t just one area or one player,” said Johnson. “It’s always a collective thing.”
However, when the dust settles, there will be immense pride in their campaign and the way they have moved the needle within the local sporting landscape. That was shown with the incredible pre-game support - as a large contingent of Warriors fans took over the surrounding streets around Suncorp Stadium - and the reception after the match. It was also illustrated by the reaction back home, which has reached new heights over the last week.
“It’s nice to see the difference we are making in people’s lives,” said Johnson. “The reception we received makes you feel proud of the year we have put together and the way the fans have got behind us. It’s connecting with these guys on a level that we probably didn’t quite understand until you go through moments like that.”
Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering Olympics, Fifa World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns. He has also reported on the Warriors and NRL for more than a decade.