Tuesday, May 21

Why the Warriors have a point to prove and the hidden problem coach Webby has masterfully disguised – but for how long?

Is everyone else sick to bloody death of Australian clubs and former player-commentators saying how thankful they are to the NZ Warriors for their sacrifices during Covid? 

I sure as hell am. 

Maybe it’s starting to wear a little thin because it’s now obvious that their platitudes are about as meaningless as religion when doubt strikes, and as hollow as a packet of Bluebird salt & vinegar crisps. 

It seems pretty apparent that Australian NRL clubs are more than happy to say, “thanks mate”, so long as it doesn’t inconvenience their bottom line in any way whatsoever. Because ultimately, all evidence points to the contrary in terms of their gratitude. 

Not one team, other than the Tigers, have offered up one of their own home games to be played in New Zealand to restore the game there. I’m sure there’s other logic to the Tigers game (other than acknowledging sacrifice), because the Tigers have opted to play the game in Waikato of all places, not Mt Smart. But we’ll take it. It’s more than you can say for any of the other 14 teams that have expressed their heartfelt appreciation with just words (not including the Dolphins for obvious reasons). 

A large chunk of the current Warriors contingent will rightfully be left feeling aggrieved by the baseless acknowledgements of their Aussie counterparts. And you know what? So should the Warriors fans. They have every right to feel pissed off. 

For two and a half years the fans sat there powerless and unable to offer their vocal support at games and were forced to watch their players and club endure personal hardship and take beating after beating despite trying their best to remain stoic. 

Sport is very tribal. If you’re like me, you’ll be sitting there during games, physically bracing yourself as you watch the players heading into tackles. It’s not so much that you’re watching them – you’re with them. Research has found this is because our tribal reflexes and instincts are hard wired to survival mechanisms in our brain. The club we support represents our village. And we need our village to win. Because centuries ago, if they didn’t win, you didn’t survive. It’s no excuse, but perhaps an explanation that may contribute as to why we grow so fiercely frustrated or passionate about the ups and downs of our teams, particularly when we feel they are getting a raw deal, whether that be from game officials or administrators.

So, when we witness our tribe, the NZ Warriors be passive aggressively disrespected for their sacrifice and mistreated by the rest of the NRL clubs in this way, it’s understandable that we grow defensive of them and want to see some kind of justice dished out. Especially when the Warriors are already the underdog. But justice toward who, and how? Given that we’re one New Zealand club among seventeen clubs in an Australian competition, the chances of seeing any actual justice in this instance is pretty much zero. So, what can the Warriors do then? Well, there’s only one thing they can do.

Win. 

It’s the only way to earn genuine respect and prevent this type of mistreatment happening again, let alone go unanswered. 

Let me explain. 

I recall Nathan Fein walking off the park after the Warriors miraculously defeated the Melbourne Storm in the first round of finals footy back in 2008. The Warriors were the first ever team that were placed 8th on the ladder, to beat the team placed 1st.

As Fein was making his way into the tunnel, he made a throwaway comment to a nearby journalist “Maybe they’ll show us some fucking respect now.” 

Meaningful respect in the NRL is something the Warriors have struggled with. And why they’re receiving very little of it now. 

The NRL won’t care of listen to a club that has consistently finished the season in the lower half of the ladder for the past decade. The Warriors don’t have the glamorous ownership of the Rabbitohs, or the fanbase of the Broncos let alone superstar players that have the platform to voice an opinion that can carry much weight. And they don’t have the stars because they aren’t creating any. 

That’s just the result of losing more games than they win. Their fanbase has dwindled along with grass roots and pathways drying up after they were forced to uproot themselves for years. Is anyone really going to care that much if the struggling Warriors are aggrieved about something? 

Probably not. 

To most Australians, Warriors are out of sight out of mind and offer little to the competition other than being a novelty. The main reason for this is because they just don’t offer a genuine threat. The Warriors were reportedly 6 months away from dropping out of the competition completely. Some say this would have sent shockwaves. I disagree. Maybe for a few months. Because the NRL was doing just fine before the Warriors showed up. And they would adjust without them. Plus with the arrival of the Dolphins, would anyone really have taken that much notice…? So why should the NRL put themselves out to acknowledge the Warriors incredible contribution and sacrifice other than saying, “thanks mate”? 

But what if the Warriors began to win? What if this sleeping giant woke up and began to do what Ivan Cleary was doing before he left, and has gone on to do at the Panthers? What if Webster, the players and the Warriors club administrators built a formidable dynasty? What if they won the premiership two or three years in a row, just like the legendary Eels and Raiders sides of the 80s and Broncos of the 90s and Panthers of today. What if the Warriors brand within the NRL became so indispensable, they couldn’t afford to lose it? I imagine such sacrifices in the future would not go so overlooked. I would say that if the Warriors threatened to remove themselves because of ill treatment, there would be hell to pay. The NRL would be inundated with fury from fans quitting the game on both sides of the Tasman and the Warriors stars would have a significant platform to express their frustrations to a much wider audience. But most importantly for the NRL, the revenue at stake by that point would be too significant to lose. 

Not winning contributes to any sides struggle with recruitment, particularly for the Warriors who have the added challenge of their location. And because they don’t win enough, the Warriors aren’t seen as viable finals footy contenders. Why does that matter in terms of recruitment? Many players, particularly senior players who know their times is running out, reach a stage in their careers where they want to win a premiership ring or at least put themselves into a much stronger position to do so. In a competitive salary capped environment, that’s gold. And it’s just something the Warriors couldn’t honestly offer – until now. 

As it stands, the Warriors recruited brilliantly in the off-season, despite no superstars being signed. And coach Webster will probably have tipped his hat to Nathan Brown for some of them (e.g., Mitch Barnett) Each new recruit has made an impression and though Luke Metcalfe hasn’t played a game yet, he showed enough in the pre-season games that he will have something to offer. 

Their finest recruit, Andrew Webster, is making a name for himself and players from other clubs will now be taking notice of the Warriors and seeing the possibilities of this sleeping giant. And it’s important they do because despite the impressive low-key signings and form the Warriors have discovered, there’s one area that Webster has brilliantly disguised, but is one or two injuries away from being exposed. 

The Warriors lack any genuine depth at prop. 

Till now, Webster has masterfully utilised what he has to work with. While everyone was wondering whether Dylan Walker or Jazz Tevaga would win the utility spot on the bench, Webster didn’t see the issue – he put them both there. It’s been a sublime move for two reasons – both have found form and brought enthusiasm, solid ball-playing skills and increased versatility should injuries strike. 

But more importantly, in doing so, Webster has managed to solve a hidden problem of needing two props on the bench, because both players have provided the spark and energy to fill that void. Most teams traditionally carry a backline player but Walker also covers that role too. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Dylan Walker is probably the most underrated buy of the season so far, simply for the energy, toughness, and versatility he provides a team. 

However, should Walker pick up a suspension or an injury, along with Addin Fonua-Blake, the Warriors will begin to have a growing headache because they simply lack depth in the propping department. Fonua-Blake, Afoa, Tom Ale, and Valingi Kefu are the only props in the team. 

Sure, there are players that can cover, such as Mitch Barnett, but he provides real starch in the second row. Captain Tohu Harris can play prop but his silky ball-playing skills are more beneficial to the team when he plays at lock. And while Tom Ale will only improve, he’s doesn’t have a lot of size to him. Bunty Afoa is fairly one-dimensional and arguably his form has dipped. Kefu hasn’t even played a game at NRL level before. All this means that the Warriors are a few injuries away from having very little in the engine room and will be forced to use players out of position to cover a role that is incredibly demanding and important to their pack. 

And yet, none of this really matters that much if the Warriors can manage to remain reasonably injury free and keep on winning more games than they lose. 

Keep winning, and by doing so, they will play finals footy this year and give themselves a chance at the big show. A better chance of recruiting well, of growing their fanbase and pathways. And as wild as it might sound if the Warriors make the big show, and take those first steps to building a dynasty, then the players that made that sacrifice, along with the fans who have felt patronised, will feel vindicated and happily toast the other NRL clubs with a giant middle finger. And maybe, just maybe, look forward to a dynasty emerging from the ashes and their club finally developing the respect they deserve. 

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