Friday, July 19

The best signing of 2023 and the three tests the Warriors must overcome to prove it

So, I have this dream. It’s a little embarrassing really, but I figure you love rugby league as much as I do, so maybe you’ve either had it too or can at least relate. 

The dream is that somehow, I stumble into a couple of hundred million dollars and decide to start the 18th franchise, based out of New Zealand. 

In my dream, I imagine I’d build the club based on people and players of good character. I figure if you did that, the results would eventually come because people of good character won’t put up with losing all the time or giving up during games. 

In my dream, I help build a club people want to identify with, and a safe environment where they feel like they belong. Because let’s face it, I for one have been reluctant at times to acknowledge I support the Warriors. Not because of their poor win record or that the game is viewed by some as a second-class cousin of union. But because I’m conscious of league’s reputation being associated with thugs and rapists. 

It’s hard to dispel memories of events like the Bulldogs hotel gang bang controversy or the alleged Jared Hayne date rape currently swirling in the headlines. Let alone the regular flare-ups during games that are born out of fury or frustration. Personally, I’m still baffled as to how players aren’t charged by the police when they throw the first punch at someone on the field.

Yet while I understand the associated perceptions, I just love the game and desperately dream of supporting a code and team I can be proud of. 

Well, guess what? My dream is coming true. No, I haven’t won a couple of hundred million, and I’m not spearheading an 18th franchise. But based on what I’m seeing so far at the Warriors, I’m getting to live this dream somewhat vicariously because of a signing that is proving to be the best of the 2023 season – Andrew Webster. 

The Warriors have recruited some excellent talent this season. It’s easy to talk about names like Charnze, Dylan Walker, Metcalfe and the steel of Mitch Barnett. Yet the player that flew completely under the radar and who I was the most surprised to see in the starting line-up for the first game of the season, was Brayden Wiliame. And yet, Wiliame epitomises this new-look Warriors outfit. 

Let me explain.  

Weighing in at an unimposing 89kg, Wiliame is a journeyman who played 34 NRL games at three different clubs and was finishing up a stint in rugby union at French club, Perpignan. 

At the ripe age of 29, Wiliame could have been forgiven for assuming his playing days in the NRL were over. And you can hardly blame Warriors fans for not calling for a ticker-tape parade at the news of his signing. I for one was left scratching my head in confusion as to why anyone would sign him.

Most would have understandably jumped to the conclusion this was another has-been who made overtures to the club that wanted one last shot to prove something to himself before he hung up his boots. But it was the Warriors’ new coach that reached out to Wiliame, and to quote Andrew Webster “The biggest strength of Brayden’s is what he does for young people around him, the way he puts his arm around them and teaches them. He’s low maintenance and he’s all professionalism” 

In other words, Webster has just as much admiration for Wiliame’s character off the field, as on it. And that’s what he wanted to surround his other younger players with. Good character. 

Tohu Harris can only do so much to drag the others along with him. He needs other leaders beside him to shoulder some of that weight. Webster may not have consciously done this and could have been forced to play Wiliame because of injuries to other players, but starting Wiliame in the first two games of the season also sent a message to the younger backs in the side – this is a guy you can and should look up to. Wiliame hasn’t captained premiership-winning teams, and he hasn’t made millions as a star player. He just loves the game, works hard and is a good bloke. And if the Warriors can establish a team based on those characteristics, they will build a champion team and won’t require a team of champions. 

Few would disagree that the greatest loss the Warriors have ever suffered as a club was the departure of the now-revered Ivan Cleary. 

Since then, it’s pretty much-been doom and gloom for the club. Or as some might view it – karma. 

The fanbase was clamouring for Bluey McLennan at the time and had no idea Cleary was about to lead the club to their second grand final. Not only that, but every Warriors development side made the final that year. I was sad to see Cleary depart, but just as curious and excited as anyone to see what Bluey would bring. Few would have predicted what was to follow. The list of successors since then hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, and most won’t have been disappointed to see any of the subsequent coaches leave, although you could make a case for Stephen Kearney getting a raw deal. 

Like Wiliame, Warriors fans would have been left somewhat underwhelmed by Webster’s appointment as head coach. His signing is not pandering to the fanbase like McLennan, and he’s not a PR stunt like the ARU bringing Eddie Jones back to replace Rennie or having Cheika coaching Lebanon’s league side. Webster has done his apprenticeship, has the right background and character for the club and is fully qualified to take the step into a head coaching role. And the Warriors are now beginning to reap the benefits of having made a sensible decision rather than bowing to the comments section on social media. 

Also in Webster’s favour is that he has previously been an assistant at the Warriors, so he’s known what he was getting himself into. Webster has acknowledged Ivan Cleary was able to share his experience with him about what support he would need to surround himself with as a head coach at the Warriors, in order to give himself the best chance to be successful. On behalf of all Warriors fans – thanks again, Ivan. 

There’s a joke going around that Ivan gave the Warriors Webster because he still loves the club, and gave the Bulldogs Cameron Ciraldo as a fuck you to Gus.

It doesn’t matter though. Both are no doubt solid coaches as last weekend proved, but Webster is probably a better fit for the Warriors. Because does anyone recall seeing as many smiles on the player’s faces, or Shaun Johnson producing some of the best tackles and clutch plays of his career to date? You’ll have to cast your minds back a long way to recall the defensive grit and resilience we’re seeing now on a consistent basis from this club. Let alone the positive rhetoric from the players that isn’t just stock standard media spin. And Johnson managing to remain uninjured to allow himself to discover some form is beginning to pay dividends.  I’ve been pinching myself during games – is this actually happening? Maybe. 

So, when will we know for sure if this isn’t just a passing phase? 

There are three tests the Warriors need to overcome to prove Webster isn’t a flash in the pan. 

First up is Anzac Day against the Storm, where the Warriors usually end up as cannon fodder for the Melbourne club. Despite the Storm dealing with an injury crisis and having lost a wealth of experience in the off-season, they are still a formidable side and if the Warriors can take them close or win, they will have overcome the first hurdle. 

The second test is proving Greg (Brandy) Alexander and Steve (Blocker) Roach right. I hear you – who on earth would want to do that?  But their claims the Warriors are often more successful during Origin has obviously become a misnomer perpetuated by two dinosaurs from a bygone age. 

I doubt Brandy and Roach even watch the Warriors; they just watch the teams playing against them. Because you can often still hear them blathering on about the size of the Warriors pack, which has been one of the smaller packs in the NRL for the past decade. 

The Warriors are no longer advantaged by Origin in the way they used to be, because the games have been spread and restructured so clubs aren’t disadvantaged and players don’t get burned out. But if the Warriors can navigate a run of games against sides that are proven or proving themselves as genuine contenders in 2023 (Panthers, Roosters, Broncos and Dolphins), then Brandy and Roach will sit there like the two muppets, Statler and Waldorf, ignorantly remonstrating from their perch in the stand about how advantaged the Warriors were. 

The third and final test is resilience. which we’re beginning to see defensively. But they can’t capitulate during games when the going gets tough or decisions are going against them. Not just for one game. For the season.  Do this, and they will show character. The type of character that builds good people and players.

That good character will translate to the community that supports them. Do that, and eventually, they will begin to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and us die-hards will also feel a lot more comfortable telling everyone we love rugby league and support the Warriors – without any disclaimers. While it’s probably still too early to start getting our hopes up again, the signs are positive. But if Webster can help instil and develop the mindset to survive the three tests… anything is possible. 

Disclaimer – THE 18th MAN has no links to the Warriors players, owner or staff. The opinions expressed are that of an independent observer of games and club generated media.