Home Record: 8 wins, 4 losses (=6th)
Away Record: 6 wins, 6 losses (=5th)
Longest Winning Streak: 5 (rounds 7-11)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (rounds 13-16)
Players Used: 29
Player of the Year: Simon Mannering
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 88 (7th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 71 (5th)
But for a few moments of bad luck and some mistimed errors when it mattered most, the Warriors could well have celebrated their maiden premiership in 2011. In the end they fell just short – beaten by a rampant Manly outfit 24-10 in the decider – yet the Warriors’ effort in reaching just their second ever grand final (and their first in nine years) was a triumph for the club and departing coach Ivan Cleary.
Having come so close in recent years, the Warriors overcame a shocker against Brisbane in Week One of the finals to stage a thrilling comeback against Wests Tigers a week later before stunning minor premiers Melbourne at AAMI in the grand final qualifier.
Despite falling short, the Warriors could well look back on 2011 as a breakthrough season. Having reached the finals four out of the past five years, they finally proved that they could match it with the best in the NRL come the business end of the year. They managed to rouse the fickle Kiwi public and earned a wave of support across the Tasman even while the Rugby World Cup was doing its best to take centre stage. And the emergence of young guns Shaun Johnson and Kevin Locke – who cemented the No.1 jersey after falling out of favour late last year – had fans of every club tuning in to see what brilliance they would produce next.
Johnson in particular looks to be a star of the future. His blinding speed and dazzling footwork turned the Warriors’ season on its head following his debut in Round 13, with a highlights reel that would make Benji Marshall proud. Johnson’s magical run to seal victory against Melbourne two weeks ago was played repeatedly during grand final week and he managed a similar effort in the grand final to set up a try for Manu Vatuvei, but it was one of the tries of the year against Brisbane in Round 21 in which he beat six players in a 60-metre solo dash that had the experts gushing.
Still, the Warriors had their moments. Incredibly, they actually began 2011 with three consecutive losses before finally kick-starting their campaign with a 26-18 win over Cronulla in Round 4, while a four-game losing streak between their byes in Rounds 12 and 17 was cause for some concern. Yet they recovered well on both occasions and stormed into the decider with nine wins from their last 12 games.
If anything, the news that coach Ivan Cleary was leaving for Penrith in 2012 after being offered a long-term deal seemed to inspire the players. Cleary will no doubt rue the fact that he will no longer be around to watch first-hand the development of the Warriors plethora of young stars, but he can at least take solace in the fact that he leaves the club in good stead.
A bright future awaits.
Where They Excelled: The Warriors were the kings of second-phase play in 2011. Their 328 offloads during the regular season was bettered only by Penrith, while their ability to take advantage of their skills around the rucks was unparalleled.
Leading the way was back-rower Feleti Mateo who was the NRL’s top off-loader for the year with 74, with Simon Mannering (27), Manu Vatuvei (25), Joel Moon (24) and Krisnan Inu (23) also difficult to contain. The Warriors drove their rivals mad with their second-phase play and with little men Shaun Johnson, Kevin Locke and Lance Hohaia scheming through the middle they proved extremely difficult to contain.
Where They Struggled: While the Warriors made great strides defensively in 2011, they remained susceptible to the bomb, with giant winger Manu Vatuvei the unfortunate target of attention following a nightmare outing against Brisbane in Week One of the finals (in which he made six errors).
In fact, the Warriors struggled against all sorts of high kicks. Thy defused just 32 of 45 bombs at 71 per cent – better only than Parramatta – 14 of 22 mid-field bombs at 64 per cent and only 13 of 25 cross-field bombs at 52 per cent.
Missing In Action: Injuries were for the most part kind to the Warriors in 2011 although they didn’t have a lot of luck out wide, with three specialist centres missing the run home to the finals. Particularly unlucky was Joel Moon, who had fought his way back into the NRL squad late in the year and was in fine form before a broken leg ended his season in Week One of the finals.
Jerome Ropati played just three games all year before undergoing a knee reconstruction while Shaun Berrigan was in and out of the side all year with a series of frustrating injury concerns.
The Warriors looked to have uncovered another star in fullback Glen Fisiiahi early in the year but after just four games an ankle sprain opened the door for Kevin Locke and Fisiiahi spent the rest of the season playing NSW Cup.
Turning Point: The Warriors’ second bye seemed to come at just the right time for the club, with four consecutive losses threatening to derail their campaign. Losses to the Roosters, Wests Tigers, North Queensland and Melbourne saw them slip from fifth to ninth but after enjoying a week off they returned with a vengeance – winning four in a row and eight of their remaining 10 regular season games to reach the finals in sixth.
Best Games: A 48-16 thrashing of South Sydney in Round 16 not only had the Warriors riding high but proved that they were serious premiership contenders in 2011. Souths had been in decent form themselves and were right in the hunt for their own finals appearance but were blown away by the brilliance of the Warriors. Tries to Bill Tupou, Shaun Johnson, Manu Vatuvei and James Maloney had the Warriors up 24-0 after just 25 minutes and despite a brief Rabbitohs comeback they continued to pile on the points. Vatuvei finished the game with a hat-trick while centre Joel Moon added a double shortly after half-time.
Worst Games: Enigmatic at times, the Warriors produced their best and worst football to lose the unlosable match against Wests Tigers in Round 14. Leading 22-4 with just 16 minutes remaining, the Warriors apparently switched off and couldn’t switch back on again as the Tigers raced in four late tries to steal a remarkable 26-22 win. Tries to Benji Marshall in the 64th minute, Wade McKinnon in the 67th, Blake Ayshford in the 72nd and Beau Ryan in the 75th broke the Warriors’ resolve as they slumped to a devastating loss.
Hold Your Head High… The Warriors had any number of brilliant performers in 2011 but none better than flying fullback Kevin Locke. Relegated to NSW Cup at the start of the year behind fellow young gun Glen Fisiiahi, Locke made the most of his opportunity when recalled a month later with his scything kick returns, incisive support play and sheer speed sparking the Warriors’ attack.
He finished the season ranked 10th for total metres gained with 3021 at an average 128.8 metres per game while he made more metres from kick returns than any other player with 1675.
Coach Ivan Cleary says: “I’m very proud of the boys. To have five games away from home out of the final six and still be coming home strong at the end of the grand final – I’m very proud. We spoke about that after [the grand final]. I could see it in their eyes that they were pretty content with what they’ve done. They gave it everything they had. We deserved to be in the grand final. We finished in the top six and I always thought this year that if you made the top six you were a good chance of getting a second chance. That’s what we got and we made the most of it. I don’t know how hard it will be to leave yet but I will definitely miss the guys.”
Conclusion… Although they will no doubt ponder what might have been after falling to Manly in the grand final, the Warriors can look back with pride on a season in which they took some significant strides. A second grand final was a deserved reward for the entertaining style that has come to epitomise their play and they certainly energised a nation with their deep run in the finals. Coach Ivan Cleary may be gone, but with Kevin Locke, Shaun Johnson, Feleti Mateo and James Maloney leading the way it would seem that there will be more good times ahead.