What to make of the Warriors’ on-again, off-again 2013 season? On the surface, an 11th-place finish is a long way from what new coach Matthew Elliott would have been hoping for when he first arrived across the Tasman last November – and given the talent this club boasts a top-eight berth should be the least of their expectations.
But we’ve also got to consider where they came from. This time last year, the Warriors were but a shell of their once spectacular selves. Beaten down, confidence battered... seemingly with little idea just where it all went wrong, the final few months of their 2012 season were so disastrous that then-coach Brian McClennan stood himself down after just 12 months in the job. You don’t see that every day.
And so it was that the Warriors struggled to get their 2013 season going after carrying that same lack of confidence into the new year. It started disastrously with an embarrassing 40-10 loss away to Parramatta in Round 1 – a result that, in hindsight, beggars belief given just how abysmal the Eels have been – and by the time they stumbled their way through 10 rounds the Warriors had just two wins to their name and sat 15th on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
In fact, Round 10 proved to be a significant weekend for the Warriors. Thrashed 62-6 by Penrith in what was the biggest loss in the club’s history, rumours quickly began circulating that perhaps Elliott was about to become their second quick-fire coaching casualty in as many years.
But that debacle seemed to finally wake the beast from its slumber – and we don’t just mean Manu Vatuvei.
The following week, the Warriors stunned Newcastle 28-12 at Mt Smart Stadium send a message to their fans that they weren’t going to capitulate for a second season running. The week after that they ran in 10 tries – the same number Penrith had scored against them a fortnight earlier – to thrash Brisbane 56-12 at Suncorp.
Next on the menu was high-flying Manly, who fell 18-16, and when the Sydney Roosters became their fourth victim in a row the Warriors had produced the most remarkable of turnarounds to put themselves back in the finals frame.
Over the course of eight memorable weeks, the Warriors won seven games – the last of which saw them knock over premiers Melbourne – with their only loss coming in a thriller against competition leaders South Sydney in Perth.
But in the end, the Kiwi outfit just couldn’t make-up the ground they had lost at the start of the year. Home losses to Cronulla and Penrith with the promise of finals football looming proved costly and they simply ran out of steam when they fell to St George Illawarra in their final regular season game – a clash they simply had to win to stand any chance of stealing eighth spot.
The Warriors have been wildly inconsistent at times in the past but their problem was the complete opposite in 2013: when they were hot they were almost unbeatable and they certainly rediscovered the razzle-dazzle in that tremendous mid-season run, yet when things turned cold it would take weeks for them to plug the leaks.
The key now is to focus on the positives. After that horrible start, halfback Shaun Johnson rediscovered his spark and produced some truly magical plays that will no doubt feature on the highlight reels for years to come. Hulking centre Konrad Hurrell responded to being dropped early in the year by returning to monster his opponents and his trampling of Greg Inglis on his way to the try line in Round 17 was something to behold. And it was great to see Manu Vatuvei regularly featuring on the try-scoring lists again after some injury worries in recent years. He scored 16 tries from 19 appearances and remains a vital cog in the Warriors’ wheel.
Given what they achieved from Round 11 onwards, it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of them come finals time, but there is always next year and all signs point to a much better showing in 2014.
Where They Excelled: It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that a team boasting the likes of Shaun Johnson, Kevin Locke, Feleti Mateo, Konrad Hurrell and Manu Vatuvei proved extremely difficult to contain when they threw the ball around. In 2012, the Warriors went away from what had made them so dangerous on their way to the grand final the year before but after a slow start this season it finally came back to them. Their 77 tries was the sixth most in the competition and they favoured broken play situations and second-phase play to make it happen. The Warriors ranked second for offloads in 2013 with 251 and managed to do so without letting excessive errors creep into their game (fifth best in the NRL). They also ranked third for tries scored from kick returns with six and equal third for tries scored directly from offloads (five).
Where They Struggled: For a side renowned as one of the most physical in the competition, the Warriors struggled to gain the ascendency in the middle of the field in 2013. They ran for a total of 28,432 metres this season at an average of just 1,185 per game – only Wests Tigers and Parramatta averaged fewer. Kicking also proved to be a problem area for Matthew Elliott’s men. Of the 142 long kicks they produced this season, only 72 found open space at a success rate of 50.7 per cent. Again, that places them ahead of only the Gold Coast when it comes to kicking accuracy.
Missing In Action: The Warriors enjoyed a reasonably good run with injury throughout 2013 with their big names all available for the majority of the season. Most notable again was the absence of Jerome Ropati, who played just three games due to knee and hamstring problems. He has played just 14 games now in the past three years. Also sidelined for a long period was centre Ben Henry, who played seven games before becoming the third Warrior to be ruled out for the year with a knee injury alongside Steve Rapira and Sione Louisi. An ongoing hamstring complain restricted prop Russell Packer to nine games.
Turning Point: What looked like a season spiralling dangerously out of control after 10 rounds took a sudden and largely unexpected turn for the better when the Warriors beat Newcastle 28-12 in Round 11. That win came just a week after the biggest loss in the club’s history – a 62-6 belting at Penrith. From there, they could have completely hit the wall but instead it proved the catalyst for a dramatic resurgence as the Warriors won their next five games and seven of their next eight including upsets over title contenders Sydney Roosters, Manly and Melbourne.
Best Games: For heart and determination against a top-quality side, the Warriors’ Round 14 win over Sydney Roosters at Allianz Stadium was pretty special. Having jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, the Warriors looked in trouble as the Roosters stormed back to take a 12-10 half-time lead. But against a tirade of Roosters attack in the second stanza, the Warriors held firm and scored a brilliant 23-12 win thanks to two counter-attacking tries from Glen Fisi’iahi and Manu Vatuvei. As far as displaying all their attacking brilliance, a 56-12 win over Brisbane in Round 12 was a huge confidence booster for the club. They scored 10 tries and displayed the razzle dazzle of old on their way to a huge win.
Worst Games: Two games immediately spring to mind. An opening round 40-10 loss to Parramatta was a terrible way to start their season and it took them quite some time to recover. More devastating though was a 62-6 thrashing at the hands of Penrith in Round 10. There was little that went right for the Warriors on their way to conceding 10 tries – they failed to find touch from a penalty, were penalised for being in front from the kick-off and threw some truly horrible passes as they were humiliated by their former coach Ivan Cleary.
Hold Your Head High: After being dumped to NSW Cup early in the year, centre Konrad Hurrell returned with a vengeance once recalled by coach Matthew Elliott. The powerful centre was virtually unstoppable when running at full pace, scoring a series of memorable tries due entirely to his sheer strength. He finished the year with a team-high 116 metres per game, 12 tries from 20 outings and 69 tackle-breaks. Winger Manu Vatuvei was also back to his best with 115 metres per game and 16 tries while Shaun Johnson rediscovered his mojo to finish with 10 tries, 19 try assists and 14 line-break assists.
Conclusion: It’s tough to look back too fondly on any season in which you didn’t at least reach the finals and at the end of the day, the Warriors – on paper at least – under-achieved again in 2013. But to call it a disaster would be well wide of the mark. This was a side that lost their last eight games in 2012, came into the new year completely bereft of confidence and showed it for the first 10 rounds of the year. But when the Warriors had a choice – to throw in the towel or stand tall and make something of their season – they chose the latter and very nearly stole the most unlikely of finals spots. If Matt Elliott achieved one thing in 2013 it was to put the nightmares of the previous season behind him. Now comes the real litmus test.
Home Record: 7 wins, 5 losses (=8th)
Away Record: 4 wins, 8 losses (=11th)
Longest Winning Streak: 5 (Rounds 11-14, 16)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 1-3; 5-7; 21-23)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 77 (=6th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 91 (fourth most)