Tuesday, May 21

Confessions of a Warriors couch coach

At the start of the season, my hopes and expectations were simply that the Warriors make the top 8. As the season progressed, those expectations shifted, and I’ve needed to temper my excitement and keep reminding myself of what I had originally hoped for. Safe to say the original expectations have well and truly been exceeded, not only in making the top 4, but also a preliminary final. They’ve gone from the worst defensive team, to 3rd best. 

I desperately wanted that win against the Knights because I was worried that if they didn’t, the Warriors were at risk of turning into Cronulla. But they’ve shown they deserve to be top 4 and are a team that can match it against other top 8 sides. I needn’t have been concerned. In fact, that’s the theme of the season – worrying about things I needn’t of, with the Warriors consistently allaying fears and proving that I should just take a seat and enjoy the ride. So, when the Warriors take on the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium this week, that’s exactly what I’m going to do – kick back and enjoy the occasion. 

Of course, I could get all worked up about how the Warriors can beat the Broncos. I could claim they don’t really stand a chance, that the refs won’t let them win, and all the baloney that comes with it. Truth is, I’m just grateful to support a club and players that don’t give up and have shown real resilience and fortitude to be where they are – especially when you take into account where they’ve been. Anything more than what they have already achieved would be decorations on an already well iced cake.  About the only criticism I have to offer regarding the Knights game was that the stadium DJ needs to upgrade their music collection from the 1980s. Listening to the crowd singing “Hey, hey, baby, I wanna know if you’ll be my girl”, was about as cringe as it gets and reflected how backward a country and culture we can be after a few beers. But you can’t blame the crowd for getting into the spirit of it.

Confession and acknowledgement time. 

At the start of the season, I criticised Shaun Johnson for having not delivered enough back to a club that had shown faith in him, by bringing him back into the fold. While the criticism may have been warranted at the time, Johnson has whole heartedly made me eat my words by completely backflipping on his form, to the extent that the Warriors biggest problem is going into games without him. He has now repaid the faith, tenfold. I also expressed concern that he would go into the Knights game a little undercooked after two weeks on the sidelines. Nope. He delivered sublime and clinical performance, leaving me looking like a total douche for having suggested it. 

Before he had played a game this season, I also wrote that the Warriors should offer DWZ a contract, but only at half of the $800k he’s on, because his form had been average at best and all the stats pointed to this. Well, what a season he has had. While I stand by the comments at the time, I couldn’t stand by them anymore. While it’s still usually hard to justify paying any winger more than $500 or $600k, you definitely wouldn’t begrudge the Warriors paying him a little more than most. He has come of age, and is arguably one of, if not the best finisher in the game and has the best and worst haircut in the NRL. 

I also wrote a breakdown of how average Rocco Berry had been. Again, true for what we were witnessing in his performances at the time, but boy, he’s come a long, long way under the tutelage of Andrew Webster and company.  The weight of his family name will have finally been lifted off his shoulders after his semi-final performance, and when you take into account quality centres take time to mature in the NRL, and Berry has only played 30 games in his burgeoning career, his star looks set to shine. Berry has the build, character and potential to become one of the club’s greatest centres. Now, at the start of the season, who would have thought anyone would be saying that?  Andrew Webster, that’s who. 

What all of this suggests, is that I am merely a couch-coach and would make a pathetic excuse for an NRL coach. Why? Because while I can point out the deficiencies of players, and reasons why the team isn’t as successful as they could be, I couldn’t stand there and tell you how to fix or improve any of it in a meaningful way. I couldn’t tell you how the players should have been developed and improved to reach the potential to the extent they have this season. And that’s where you have to take your hat off to Andrew Webster and his assistants. Not only has he taken a bottom 4 side and turned them into to the top 4 side along with reaching a preliminary final, but he’s upgraded the talent he was handed, shifted the mindset of the club culture, and has many players in career best form. Johnson, Harris, Barnett, Sironen, Berry, Metcalfe, DWZ, AFB, CNK, TMM – I swear if the Warriors get more players with acronyms… Oh wait, RTS and CHT are coming. Jeepers. 

Webster has also taken players we hadn’t really heard much of and turned them into stalwarts (Jackson Ford) or taken players past their prime and made them game changers (Dylan Walker).  Adam Pompey is continuing to develop and perhaps his kicking skills provide him with an edge heading into next season, because I struggle to fathom who plays in the centres next season with the emergence of Berry, Leiatua and the incoming RTS. The Warriors have massive depth in the centre and halves next season, and you almost wonder if RTS and CHT may simply end up strengthening an already solid NSW Cup side?! 

I also wrote a piece questioning whether club owner Mark Robinson behaved like an ego-driven and unprofessional peacock given he’d put the Warriors in salary cap strife by instructing the CEO Cameron George to pay out Matt Lodge. While I still think he was reckless in doing this, it’s become abundantly clear to most that Lodge is a divisive and destructive personality to have within a ranks and he needed to go. Robinson obviously felt for the sake of the team and culture, that booting him immediately was the best option. Without knowing the context surrounding this, who was I to really judge? However, their appointment of Webster instead of reaching for some marketable option has been instrumental in the Warriors fairy tale season. The effort the club has put into fan engagement has been brilliant. They deserve a lot of plaudits for their work in marketing and player recruitment, retention, and development. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record though, the Warriors continue to lack depth in their propping stocks. Bunty Afoa is signed till the end of 2025 and it’s interesting that he’s one of a few players that just haven’t blossomed under Webster, despite the success we’ve witnessed in others. Tom Ale has shown promise but appeared to be going backwards in the latter half of the season. And he sadly just lacks the size and weight required to have a genuine impact at NRL level. Mitch Barnett has successfully been converted to prop due to a lack of other options, and while Jazz Tevaga has good line speed and energy, he also suffers the same issues as Ale. Should Addin Fonua-Blake pick up an injury early next season, the Warriors have no one to replace his metres, no one that can have anywhere near the impact he produces. No big body that can come in and bend the line. Based on the Dolphins game, the Warriors without Addin and Shaun are going to struggle. Both played every game this year until the Dolphins game. And while a few others were also out (Charnze, Tohu, Ford, DWZ), the 13th placed side wiped the floor with a team that qualified top 4 and have now reached a preliminary final. So, you do the maths.  It’s hard to see where the Warriors have any salary cap though because they are having to lose Bailey Sironen – who hasn’t really done anything wrong. But Manly’s Sean Keppie is available and at 6ft 3, 110kg and with 99 games under his belt, could be just what the Warriors need to provide back up to Fonua-Blake. Or he could end up being another Kane Evan’s, so I’ll leave the recruitment strategy up to Andrew McFadden and Webster. 

And that’s the biggest takeaway of the season – leave it up to the guys that have developed into a cohesive unit that know what they are doing.  Because frankly, I’d rather not waste my energy on it. While I love the game and talking about it, I could do without the drama and I’d rather enjoy my time soaking up the occasion each week. We all should. Haven’t we got enough going on as it is with family, life admin, work, keeping fit, etc, etc. The last thing we need or want is to be complaining about our favourite team. We can now stop criticising the Warriors and enjoy appreciating them. 

So regardless of whether they manage to achieve the incredible or succumb to the Broncos this weekend, the Warriors will have had an unforgettable season. Players will have reached their potential, fans will have found belief again and the Warriors will go into next season as a genuine threat with a potential to begin building a dynasty of their own under coach Web Lasso. While I would love the Warriors to go all the way this year, I’m still happy if they don’t. They’ve already achieved far more than I hoped for. Criticism of the Warriors going into the first part of the season has been necessary and deserved, for a club that had only played one finals game in 12 years. But you can be assured that any criticism next season will be tempered with an appreciation for what has been achieved this year. Up the Wahs!