Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Position after 13 rounds: 9th
Competition points: 12
What to make of last year’s grand finalists?
Traditionally slow starters, the Warriors have continued that theme in 2012 with a combination of brilliance and underachievement leaving them right in the middle of that logjam of teams that always seems to congregate mid-table around this time of year.
It’s fair to say that an air of expectation surrounds most sides at the start of each season but there was added anticipation about the Warriors when they kicked off their campaign three months ago following their stunning charge to the 2011 grand final.
With a game plan revolving largely around second-phase play, a lightning-fast backline with the ability to score from anywhere, and the most exciting young half in the NRL, many were tipping the Warriors to go one better than 2011.
But, as usual, it is taking the Warriors a while to find their groove. While they have shown flashes of the unique talents that exist within their squad – primarily thanks to Shaun Johnson – they have again been plagued by inconsistency and only once, in Rounds 9 and 10, have they recorded consecutive wins.
What makes their progress thus far so difficult to judge is that, for the most part, the Warriors have been pretty good... barring shocking performances against the Roosters in Round 5 and Raiders in Round 6.
They went down in their opening game of the season to premiers Manly 26-20 in what was easily the game of the round, conceded late tries in another thriller against Canterbury in Round 3 and fell narrowly 24-22 to Wests Tigers at Leichhardt two weeks ago. They led the Storm 12-nil in Auckland last week before the premiership favourites launched a gritty comeback.
Turn those results around and the Warriors are firmly entrenched in the top four – but as it stands they find themselves needing another strong finish to the season to ensure finals qualification.
Typically strong finishers, they can only hope history repeats in 2012. As rugby league fans, we hope so too.
Are Things Going to Plan? Not really. It certrainly isn’t panic stations just yet and to a certain extent the Warriors can consider themselves unlucky not to be higher up the ladder given their performances; however, new coach Brian McClennan would have been hoping to put a finish to the side’s constant slow starts, and to that end he has failed.
There is no doubt this Warriors side has the ability to finish in the top four, so their current position outside the top eight doesn’t cut it. But, again, they have a habit of storming home and there is no reason to suggest they can’t do it again.
Injury Front… The Warriors have missed key players this season with fullback Kevin Locke and veteran back-rower Micheal Luck the most notable absentees. Luck’s absence from the defensive line has been particularly tough to deal with. Having averaged 40 tackles per game last season, he has yet to play in 2012 due to a broken wrist, with a return date tentatively set for mid-June.
Similarly, thigh and sternum injuries have put a dent in Locke’s season and the Warriors have sorely missed his speed around the ruck.
The Warriors have hardly been crippled by injury, with just 23 players used so far (equal fewest); however it is the quality of player unavailable that has had an impact – with Jacob Lillyman playing just four games and Sam Rapira six.
If Only… They had been rewarded for solid performances early in the year against Manly and Canterbury. Two Sunday afternoon matches of the highest quality saw plenty of attacking brilliance and were both poised on a knife’s edge before the visiting sides edged home at the death.
Wins in those games would have made a huge difference to the Warriors’ season.
Who’s Flying… Shaun Johnson has shown no signs of the dreaded ‘second-year syndrome’, his lightning speed and stunning footwork the highlight of the Warriors’ season so far. Having set the finals alight in 2011, Johnson has produced 11 try assists, five line-break assists, eight line-breaks, six tries, 14 offloads and 32 tackle-breaks.
Needs to Lift… The Warriors built much of their success last season off the back of their second-phase play – particularly that of back-rower Feleti Mateo – but they have struggled to match it this season. In fact, their 109 offloads in 2012 has them ranked just 12th in the NRL, with Mateo dropping from an average three offloads per game to 1.5 per game this year. The Warriors need Mateo at his dazzling best to upset the top sides.
While he is making an impact with the ball in hand, Shaun Johnson and his halves partner James Maloney need to show more grit in defence: Maloney has missed the most tackles in the NRL so far (63) while Johnson ranks fifth for misses (49).
Coach Brian McClennan tells NRL.com… “It’s been a mixed start to the year. We’ve just been guilty of being inconsistent – particularly on the edges both offensively and defensively. Then again, I think every team suffers from that at points. We’re also pretty buoyant that we do things during games where we feel like we’re the dominant team. We’ve taken some heart from that.
“We’ve probably performed better in periods of the games against teams that are near the top – it’s teams towards the bottom where we haven’t gained control. So we know we have some good ability here and some good arsenal, it’s just a matter of getting better control of games and making use of it.
“We’ve had a good break with the bye and we’ve got a block of games now over the next six weeks where we’ll try and accelerate.”
Predicted Finish… There is too much talent in this Warriors squad for them to miss the finals this season although they certainly need to kick into gear sooner rather than later. Again, consistency has been their problem but they traditionally finish strongly and there is no reason to suggest they can’t do the same again this season. A top-four finish remains a possibility... but we see them finishing in the bottom half of the top eight.
Under-20s… Premiers the past two years, the Warriors are again well placed for a tilt at a third title in as many years. Although currently fifth on the ladder, they remain just a single win behind first-placed Penrith and no doubt their opponents will all be well aware of their presence.
A 54-12 thumping at the hands of Wests Tigers in Round 12 set them back somewhat but they will be hoping it was just a blip on the radar given that they had won four in a row before that game.
The Warriors have done well given that they lost a number of players to the NRL squad this season, including Konrad Hurrell and Ben Henry.
Among those to stand tall so far in 2012 are fullback Peter Hiku, who has averaged 155 metres per game, prop Ligi Sao with 150 metres per game, and top try-scorer Siliva Havili with 10 tries from 11 starts.