Monday 18 December 2017 / 04:46 AM

GOLDEN POINTS: WARRIORS SPECIAL

Anger, despair, frustration, injustice, disappointment, dejection, déjà vu – Warriors fans have endured the full gamut of negative emotions after their inscrutable team blew yet another gilt-edged finals opportunity, crashing to an inexcusable 36-24 loss to Wests Tigers on their home patch.

THE CALLS

It was inevitable the wretched Bunker would cost a team their season, and it was equally predictable that team would be the Warriors given their inability to respond to adversity. The no-try rulings against Solomone Kata and Shaun Johnson were beyond disgraceful, both occurring when the Warriors led by six points. In all likelihood, they would have gone on to win if either had been awarded. But the manner in which the Warriors imploded after Johnson’s solo effort was pulled back defied belief.

NO URGENCY, NO HEART, NO MONGREL

All the key indicators of a team that had turned up to save their season were severely lacking. Four of the Tigers’ six tries came from simple one-on-one misses on the goal-line; the back-three were an absolute shambles, including conceding two 40/20s in the second half (one of which was not called); Aaron Woods steamrolled through the middle at will; and sloppy errors prevailed all afternoon. To leak three tries in the last 10 minutes when leading by six in a must-win game is unforgivable, and it all comes down to commitment and mental strength.

THE COACH

Andrew McFadden is one of the most genuine, honest, accessible and likeable men in the NRL, while his players have a huge amount of respect for him – which makes it all the more unfathomable they didn’t dig in to save his job.

The calls to sack ‘Cappy’ have become deafening, and it would arguably be a braver move from CEO Jim Doyle to allow McFadden to see out the final year of his contract than to replace him.

But there’s no point bringing in any mug for the sake of change.

With St George Illawarra unable to afford a top-line replacement for Paul McGregor and the Tigers likely to stick with Jason Taylor, Ivan Cleary is still available for 2017 and looms as the most obvious choice given his prior success in Auckland.

Geoff Toovey is another who should be considered.

Bringing in another untried assistant like David Kidwell would be a massive gamble, and the club would be better off sticking with McFadden for another year if they can’t secure an experienced replacement.

DEAD WOOD

I have been one of Manu Vatuvei’s biggest advocates over the years. The giant winger has always had his deficiencies, but more than compensated for them with stacks of tries and a huge work-rate. That is no longer the case. ‘The Beast’ has managed just five tries in 20 games this year, while his output per game is just 112 metres and he is more vulnerable in defence than he’s ever been. The club legend’s time is up.

Blake Ayshford joins the list of appalling outside-back signings the Warriors have made in recent years, headlined by Dane Nielsen and Jonathan Wright. Ayshford was trumpeted as some sort of defensive mastermind, but has been relentlessly exposed by opposing teams thanks to a horrendous lack of pace and physical presence. His opposing centres have scored 13 tries this year – including hat-tricks to Tyrone Peachey and Jarrod Croker – while the comparatively inexperienced (and far more valuable attacking-wise) Solomone Kata’s opponents have notched just seven touchdowns.

Ben Matulino should be the cornerstone of the Warriors’ pack, like Jesse Bromwich is at Melbourne. But the veteran of 23 Tests has been relegated to starting off the bench for the majority of the season, going through the motions when he should be in the prime of his career. The stinging defence and deft offloads that have been staples of his game are almost non-existent in 2016. Big Ben, twice the Warriors’ player of the year in the previous four seasons, isn’t justifying his big pay-packet.

Tuimoala Lolohea is an exceptional talent, but it’s becoming difficult to see where he fits into this Warriors side. Best suited to five-eighth, Lolohea is probably not the halves foil Shaun Johnson needs. Kieran Foran is a big chance of lobbing in Auckland, while Ata Hingano has rocked into contention for the pivot role. Lolohea is the third-best fullback at the club and doesn’t have the all-round game to command a regular centre or wing spot, so where does he fit in if the No.6 jersey isn’t available?

LATE-SEASON FADEOUTS

Each of the Warriors’ last five seasons of underachievement have followed the same pattern: a patchy start to point of being written off, a mid-season resurgence where they look like premiership material, and a disastrous finish that sees them slip out of contention.

The numbers don’t lie. The Warriors’ pre-Origin record from 2012-16 is 20 wins from 51 games (39% win rate), their record in the Origin-affected rounds is 22 wins from 32 games (69%), and their post-Origin record is an appalling eight wins from 36 matches (22%).

The Australian media theory that the Warriors excel mid-season and struggle late in the year because they contribute few players to Origin holds little weight. The Raiders, Panthers, Storm, Tigers and Titans only had one or two players involved this season, yet all finished the year strongly.

It’s absolutely baffling that after not losing in regulation time for nine games – culminating in one of their grittiest wins in years against Gold Coast – the Warriors could submit so badly in the past three weeks. The only other clubs to fail to register in win in Rounds 23, 24 and 25 are the last-placed Knights and the out-of-contention Sea Eagles, who lost one of those games in golden point.

After letting in just 26 tries in their previous nine games, the Warriors have leaked 18 four-pointers in the last three weeks.

While the three agonising golden point losses in the space of four games and last week’s loss to the Tigers were lost opportunities, the 41-22 defeat at home to a Souths side on a nine-match losing streak is the most difficult to comprehend. The Warriors were down 35-6 at halftime in the Round 23 clash, which was ultimately the beginning of the end of a promising charge.

FINALS ABSENCE

The Warriors haven’t played finals football since reaching the 2011 grand final under Cleary. Only Parramatta (2009), Gold Coast (2010) and Wests Tigers (2011) have been out of the playoffs longer – and either the Titans or Tigers will return this season, while the Eels would be their this year if not for their salary cap penalty.

Being arguably the biggest loser of that group is an embarrassment, considering the myriad off-field troubles and roster-management issues the other three clubs have endured.

Furthermore, 10 of the remaining 12 clubs have appeared in the finals at least twice in the past five seasons (the Knights and Dragons are the only exceptions).

The Warriors have been branded underachievers for virtually their entire existence, but they qualified for the finals seven times in 11 seasons from 2001-11, reaching two grand finals and another two preliminary finals.

The strength of the Warriors’ squad tends to be overstated, but to not be in the top half of the premiership in any of the last five seasons in such an even competition is unacceptable.

THE FANS

My dad was 39 years old when it was announced in 1992 the Auckland Warriors would be admitted to the premiership in ’95. He immediately stopped supporting Manly in eager anticipation of the much-hyped Kiwi juggernaut. He’s probably watched upwards of 95 percent of the club’s matches (for which he’s been rewarded with a 47% win rate). He turned 63 the day after the Warriors’ pathetic performance against the Tigers, and is wondering whether he’ll ever see his team live up to their potential.

Fans make clubs what they are, and while the Warriors have plenty of bandwagon-jumpers, there are countless stories like my dad’s – diehards that have been there since day one.

That’s why it’s hard to stomach the likes of Shaun Johnson, Ryan Hoffman and Manu Vatuvei publicly bristling at criticism from the club’s loyal fanbase. When supporters have poured thousands of hours into backing a Warriors team that lets them down so regularly, they’ve got every right to give them a spray.

There’s no doubt the players hurt after a defeat, during a losing streak or following a season-ending result. But that’s what they’re paid megabucks for. The Warriors’ long-suffering fans haul themselves out of bed on Monday morning to drive taxis, toil on building sites and in warehouses, stack shelves and serve customers for a fraction of the wage.

They love the club and live for that 80 minutes each week – and the players owe it to them to cop that frustration on the chin if they don’t aim up.

THE POSITIVES

The 2016 season certainly wasn’t a complete write-off. Like each of the previous four campaigns, at certain stages the Warriors looked like definite contenders. The pieces of the puzzle are there – it’s just a matter of putting them together consistently.

Solomone Kata was outstanding throughout the year, while fellow second-year players Albert Vete and Sam Lisone also improved. Another outstanding batch of rookies were blooded in 2016 in the shape of Jazz Tevaga, Nathaniel Roache, Bunty Afo, Ata Hingano and Toafofoa Sipley.

Ryan Hoffman got better as the year progressed and has the passion his teammates need to muster, and Simon Mannering was typically wholehearted.

Although there were still too many quiet games, Shaun Johnson imparted his brilliance regularly enough to be eighth for line-breaks and fourth for try-assists in the NRL – despite battling a quad injury for the second half of the year. He’ll never be as consistent or clinical as a Cooper Cronk, but no one else can do what Johnson does. Pairing him with a solid halves partner capable of taking the pressure off him shapes as a key component of the Warriors’ 2017 fortunes.

LOOKING AHEAD

Whether McFadden is at the helm or not, the Warriors should start 2017 as one of the NRL’s second-tier favourites.

Marquee fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be back on deck, which allows the brilliant David Fusitu’a to settle into a permanent three-quarter line position. Solomone Kata is the only other player guaranteed a spot out wide, and settling on a regular backline will be key.

Off-field troubles aside, snaring Kieran Foran would provide the Warriors with the halves balance and stability they have lacked since James Maloney left Auckland – but there are other viable options in Hingano and Lolohea should Foran not make the move.

There’s ample depth in the forwards and a good balance of experience and youth. Foran aside, the Warriors should be investing in a rep-quality centre or winger, and a tough prop or second-rower that can provide a bit of variety.

It’s going to be a painful summer, but the eternal optimism only Warriors fans can draw upon will rise again by March next year.

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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