Friday, July 19

Why Mitch Barnett could be the key ingredient to reversing the Warriors poor form

Warriors fans have been venting their frustrations across fan pages and salivating over talkback stations due to the team’s form slump, with the couch coaches conjuring up a range of debatable scenarios to fix the rot. And when in doubt, there’s always reverting to the tried and true stereotype of blaming the refs. And sure, there are arguments to be had with regards to the standards in officiating, but cast your mind back to last season when the Warriors were still winning, despite the poor reffing. Frankly, the Warriors’ error rate and poor discipline have probably contributed more to their fate than any referee’s whistle could. But the vast majority of the solutions proposed to shift the club’s fortunes, have been as predictable as a Warriors set coming out of their own half before Johnson kicks to the corner. 

“RTS to fullback!” “Put Ali Leiatua in at centre and RTS on the wing cause Montoya is out of form!” “They need to sort out their bench rotation.” ““Zyon in for Bunty.” “They need to fix their discipline!” ”Thoughts on RTS in the second row to take on tired defenders?” 

At least that last one was creative, but you get the picture. And maybe there is something to be said for Montoya’s poor form. However, there’s little acknowledgment of the injury crisis that the club is facing and in particular the absence of one player, who last season seemed to add a key ingredient that the Warriors appear to be missing, in the right position. No, I’m not talking about Josh Curran, though he’d certainly provide some missing depth off the bench. The player is still in the squad, it’s just that he’s injured. And his absence has been painfully obvious – at least it has for this disappointed scribe. 

In the first half of last season, Marata Niukore was a sensation, an absolute menace to the opposition halves. And he was brutal defensively. His combination with Johnson was a force and wore opponents out mentally and physically. Take nothing away from what Jackson Ford, Tohu and Capewell bring to the team effort, but the Warriors are just lacking that tough, uncompromising presence in the second row. 

Yet take a look at what happened when Jacob Laban came off, and Mitch Barnett switched to the second row – his natural position. The Warriors began to dominate and scored 2 unanswered tries and 2 that were disallowed (one incorrectly disallowed in my humble opinion). Point being – they looked extremely formidable. The Warriors of 2023, you might say. 

Yes, Zyon Maiu’u bought some much needed energy off the pine and didn’t look out of place. One expects he’ll fit the mould of a Moses Leota to compliment Fisher-Harris’ arrival. But in order to do that, he needs to keep playing. Tom Ale is beginning to find his feet and do a good job and become a like-for-like replacement for Afoa. All of which means, you could start Ale/Afoa, and shift Barnett to the second row, until Niukore returns. This would provide that extra steel in the second row that the Warriors appear to be desperately missing in terms of yardage, but more importantly, on defence. 

The injury to Niukore has ultimately left a significant point of difference lacking from the squad. It’s not a negative reflection of Laban, who has a bright future. But he just turned 20yrs, a mere two weeks ago and has only played 3 games, whereas Barnett is a battle-hardened 30-year-old with 159 games of NRL experience under his belt. 

It isn’t just Niukore’s injury that has destroyed the Warriors’ chances of building cohesion. They are the worst affected side in the NRL with 8 players unavailable due to injury. No other side has that many players out. They’ve been forced to debut two new players in Laban and Maiu’u, and have used more players from their squad than any other club in the competition. All of which has caused cohesion problems. Throw in the fact that Shaun Johnson is managing an achilles injury and therefore isn’t training with the team as much, and you begin to see why the Warriors are clunky on attack and becoming ever so predictable. It’s as though the attack coach has been on leave for a month and so they’ve had to run the same playbook. But in fact, it’s the playmaker who isn’t able to put in the reps with the rest of the team that’s causing some issues. 

However, despite Johnson’s lack of cohesion with some of the players around him, the Warriors were able to do the damage, when Barnett reverted to the second row. With Afoa returning early from injury, Barnett could be just the ingredient the Warriors need bringing high impact and energy off the bench because we know there’s no issues with them starting well. So having Barnett and Walker coming on would add a boost, rather than a drop. Because let’s face it, the Warriors once feared bench has been arguably one of the least effective in the competition over the opening 8 rounds. 

Tohu constantly looks exhausted before the game even starts- but he always has. Yet Barnett could also revert to lock when Afoa comes on and give the captain’s body a break. However it’s managed, utilizing Barnett in a more effective way could just be the key to improving the Warriors’ fluency and steel in defence. That’s the balance the team requires. At least until Niukore returns – which in all honesty, can’t come soon enough in my humble opinion. Along with Afoa, Capewell has been named to return from a throat injury, so it’s unlikely Webster may consider any of the above. I recall the game last year where Barnett came off the bench against the Dolphins after returning from injury, and his impact was blatant and intimidating, similar to how Hasler used Fifita against the Warriors. 

Defence wins competitions. And the Warriors have been a better defensive and attacking side with Barnett in the second row, or coming off the bench. Simple as that.