Warriors in 2010: From pretenders to contenders?

After a dismal 2009, are the Warriors back on track as contenders in 2010? Their promising start to the season will be pushed to the limit when they host Penrith at Mt Smart Stadium this week. <b>By Ben Blaschke</b><br><br>WHEN all is said and done and Ivan Cleary sits back in years to come looking back on his coaching career, it’s likely he will have put a black line right through season 2009.<br><br>If he could wipe it from the memory banks altogether, he would.<br><br>Even now, as the Warriors begin the long road back from the never-ending list of setbacks that summed up their year, Cleary refuses to speak about it.<br><br>And who can blame him?<br><br>From the moment popular young back-rower Sonny Fai disappeared from an Auckland beach while trying to save his brother from dangerous waters, the Warriors’ season lurched from one disaster to another.<br><br>It is best, according to Cleary, that 2009 is consigned to the history books.<br><br>But don’t think that the club didn’t learn from their annus horribilis, or overlook the strides needed to ensure it never happens again.<br><br>At the very least, their rapid transformation was there for all to see last Saturday night at ANZ Stadium when the Warriors overcame the absence of Steve Price, Simon Mannering, Micheal Luck, Brett Seymour and Ian Henderson – with a total of 750 first grade games between them – to upset the Bulldogs.<br><br>“It’s fair to say that last year we would have been flogged,” observed centre Brent Tate, who captained the side for the first time last weekend in the absence of pretty much every other senior player.<br><br>“To be honest, our pre-season this year was about changing a few attitudes. The guys in general – even the young guys – were pretty disappointed with the way they performed last year and they realised they had to work really hard in the pre-season.<br><br>“It was about changing some attitudes but I think for a few guys in-particular it was also about proving that they are good players and have what it takes to compete at this level.”<br><br>Ironically, it was after the Warriors’ narrow Round 4 loss to Manly a fortnight ago that Tate knew the side was finally getting itself back on track.<br><br>And so, appointed captain at the start of the week once Luck was ruled out with a hand injury, the 28-year-old determined that there was no need for any grandiose speeches.<br><br>“Because I knew after that Manly game how disappointed everyone was,” he explained. “It’s been a while since I really felt that as a group. <br><br>“A lot of the time with young players – and this goes for young players in every team – you look at them and wonder if it has really hurt them or not but after the Manly game I could see that they were hurting.<br><br>“That’s when I knew they would be up for the Bulldogs game.” <br><br>And so the Warriors find themselves in sixth place with three wins from their past four games; for many though, the jury is still out on the Warriors.<br><br>Touted among the competition favourites this time last year, they quickly fanned the flames of expectation with impressive wins over Parramatta and Manly in the opening two rounds before their form took a massive turn for the worse.<br><br>But where others saw fault, the Warriors saw only solutions.<br><br>When the coaching staff sat down late last year to conduct their annual review, they quickly identified three key factors that contributed to their demise.<br><br>“Losing Sonny had a bigger impact than even we realised at the time,” recalled chief executive Wayne Scurrah. “I think that all of the players and all of the staff really lived through that throughout the year. <br><br>“In saying that the guys really rallied themselves, won all of their trials and the first two games of the season but then we lost Brent Tate for the season, who was essentially our best player, and it was the final nail in the coffin.<br><br>“The other thing was the introduction of the two referees, which caught us out a little bit. We’d gone down the track in the pre-season of bulking up the guys and making them stronger as opposed to mobile, but of course the game sped up so much with the two referees and we were left a little bit stranded.<br><br>“That’s something the coaching staff addressed this time around.”<br><br>From a management perspective the Warriors also identified some areas for improvement and embarked upon a major reshuffle in the front office.<br><br>Kiwi great Ruben Wiki, who retired in 2008 after 16 seasons in the top grade, was recruited as high performance assistant; Dean Bell was put in charge of recruitment; Daryl Halligan returned as kicking coach and long-term staffer Don Mann was promoted to operations manager.<br><br>Former 2009 Toyota Cup coach Tony Iro and NRL assistant coach John Ackland also swapped roles.<br><br>“That was another key thing that our post-season review told us, that our structure had caught up with us,” Scurrah said.<br><br>“We’re one of the more under-resourced sides in terms of not having Leagues Club backing so it’s important that we get the structure right.<br><br>“I think we’ve got a much more robust structure now. <br><br>“It’s still early in the season and we’re not there yet but I think we’ll see a lot of benefit in that.”<br><br>On the field, according to veteran utility Lance Hohaia, the recovery began with each player being honest on where they fell down in 2009. <br><br>“At the end of each year we look at whether team goals were missed or met and also individual goals and I think there were a lot of misses last season,” said Hohaia, who is reveling in the new-found responsibility heaped on his shoulders this season following the retirement of ageing halfback Stacey Jones.<br><br>With so many youngsters elevated to first grade ahead of time last year, Jones was forced to play far more minutes than anticipated in 2009 after originally returning to add a little depth.<br><br>“I guess every individual had to take on that responsibility as well,” Hohaia continued. “You’ve got to find ways of bettering your abilities each year and I think we’re going okay at the moment in that sense.<br><br>“But a lot of it comes down to confidence.<br><br>“We’ve done a lot of hard work over the summer months to try and build our confidence and winning games does that too. That’s the big difference this year – we’re playing with our confidence a little higher.”<br><br>The Warriors aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves: one of the reasons Cleary declined to speak about his side’s return to form this season is that 2010 is still only five weeks old.<br><br>But their three wins in that time – against Cronulla, Brisbane and the Bulldogs – is already one more than they scored in the concluding 11 weeks of 2009.<br><br>And while Cleary has well and truly moved on, the players won’t easily forget how quickly the tide can turn.<br><br>“I don’t think you put a year like that behind you,” Tate says. “You need to learn from it. <br><br>“Our game is so fickle that it can change in the blink of an eye. <br><br>“That’s what happened to us last year. <br><br>“This time last year we were still going alright and then all of a sudden we had a shocking year. <br><br>“I think at the end of the day you have to use it as motivation to keep getting better, to turn up to training each week and put in because we know how bad it can get. <br><br>“No-one enjoyed last year at all and that stands as a reminder to us of what can happen.”