Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Are the Warriors of 2023, just the Cronulla Sharks of 2022 in disguise?
Now before you shit the bed and start calling me a hater masquerading as a supporter, let me start by saying that I don’t wholeheartedly believe this is the case, for reasons which I’ll dive into. But, there are some worrying trends.
Let me explain.
Undoubtedly, the NZ Warriors have taken giant strides this season, far exceeding everyone’s expectations, including many who had pinned them as this year’s likely wooden spooners. However, with such lofty achievements comes revised ambition. And having rejuvenated a waning fanbase, the Warriors have consequentially generated high hopes – maybe too high than their position on the ladder suggests. In other words, while they aren’t imposters, 3rd position on the points table needs to be tempered with more context because it may misrepresent how good they really are. Of course, I could be wrong. So, let’s take a closer look then.
This season, the Warriors have beaten six teams from the top 8, but none of the teams in the top 4, who most consider to be the genuine premiership contenders. Aside from getting hammered twice by an underwhelming Roosters side, the Warriors haven’t beaten the Storm, Penrith, Souths, or even the baby Broncos, and they’ve only had to play each of them, once.
That’s the critical part of the equation.
Arguably if they had to play a few of these teams, twice, they may be 4 points lower, sitting in 5th or 6th on the table. Which might actually be a fairer reflection of how good they are going. This is still a crap tonne better than anyone had predicted, let alone better than 11 out of our last twelve seasons.
On the flip side, they’ve beaten everyone else, including the Sharks, Cowboys, Knights, and Raiders, twice each. They sit 3rd on the table having won their last five and with three games remaining. And it’s important to note that their last five games are against bottom 8 sides; Titans (W), Tigers (W), Manly, St George, and Dolphins. That often isn’t great preparation for finals footy.
Last season, Cronulla was second on the ladder at the end of the regular season having suffered losses to the Storm, Raiders (x2), Roosters, Broncos, and Panthers (x2). The only teams they beat that made the top 8 were the Eels (rd 2), Souths, Storm (with Origin players missing), and the Cowboys. They beat 4 teams who were in the top 8. They never lost to a team they shouldn’t have, but never really beat a side they should’ve. Their final five games of the season which propelled them into 2nd on the ladder, were against bottom 8 sides, St George, Tigers, Manly, Bulldogs, and the Knights. Sound familiar?
Cronulla lost their first finals game at home against the Cowboys, and their subsequent finals game at home, against South Sydney. Having finished 2nd on the ladder, the Sharks were bundled out of finals in two straight losses. That’s fairly unusual for a team placed second on the ladder. But I would argue their position on the ladder was a false economy due to the nuances of the draw because they didn’t have to play the tough sides more than once – other than Penrith to whom they lost both times. All of which have similarities to the Warriors of 2023. The Sharks also boasted a rookie coach in his ‘second’ season whom the fanbase was clamouring to see upgraded with a contract extension.
Is this all still sounding somewhat familiar?
Assuming the Warriors win their remaining games, and the Broncos don’t implode like they did last year, it would see the Warriors finish 3rd and play the Broncos (2nd) at Suncorp Stadium in the first round of finals footy – a game in which most would expect the Warriors to lose based on each team’s current form. You’d be a dickhead to bet money against the Warriors though. But lose, and this means the Warriors would host a home final against someone like the Raiders, Knights, Cowboys, or Souths. Win and they’re in the preliminary final. And in doing so will prove they are not the Sharks of 2022. Lose, and you could probably make a solid case that the Warriors were the Sharks of 2022. But only a case. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that’s not really true.
So, what separates this Warriors outfit from the Sharks of 2022? Well, they’ve beaten the Sharks twice this season – that’s one pretty good sign. And they beat six of the top 8 sides as opposed to the Sharks only being able to beat four. All of which suggests the Sharks had to play fewer teams inside the top 8 given that they finished 2nd, last season with 38 points (note, the Warriors will finish with 40 points but with an extra round included to accommodate a 17th team).
Coach Webster is in his first season, unlike Craig Fitzgibbon who was in his second season in 2022. Webster has completely changed the culture in months. He’s changed the Warrior’s identity from low-percentage plays for the highlights reel to one of resilience that is based on high-percentage footy. The Warrior’s pathways have been restored and the new recruits are mostly mature family men, who are cool heads under pressure. Players like Dylan Walker, Charnze Nicol-Klokstad, Mitch Barnett, Marata Niukore, and Brayden Wiliame all bring a composure that the Warriors have previously lacked. Throw in Addin Fonua-Blake giving Payne Haas a run for his money as the Daly M Prop of the year and the resurgence of Shaun Johnson who not only has instilled a calming influence but is having a career-defining season that epitomises the Warriors this year – no one saw it coming. The greatest addition to his game has been his consistency. You could make a case that the reason Shaun Johnson was so inconsistent, was because he was consistently picking up injuries that hampered his fluency and form. He’s played every game this season which has contributed to an opportunity to build form – something I can’t ever recall him getting the chance to do.
So, are the Warriors just the Sharks of 2022 in disguise?
Even if they do get bundled out of finals footy in two straight games, my answer would be no. The Sharks finished 9th under Fitzgibbon in 2021. The Warriors finished 15th last season under Nathan Brown and caretaker coach Stacey Jones. The brand, identity, and recruitment have shifted significantly in the right direction. You can count on the Warriors improving a lot more in the off-season and being a real genuine threat next year with RTS re-joining the side and setting high standards. Players like Ali Leiatua and Demitric Sifukula will be pushing hard for positions and keeping incumbents on their toes. The Warriors of 2024 will likely be stronger than the Sharks of 2023. The future is bright.