Warriors captain Simon Mannering has seen the papers. He’s seen their articles stack higher than Aoraki Mount Cook telling Kiwis across the country about the captain with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, and he knows they aren’t talking about him.
He knows that the midst of a rugby World Cup in New Zealand isn’t the easiest time to get his country behind rugby league. And he knows the only advantage of being the lesser-known captain is that, unlike All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, he could at least take his girlfriend on a “nice little date” without the media’s scorn if his side were to fall at the final hurdle.
“I’m enjoying it,” he says of the captaincy. “It doesn’t feel like there’s a big job resting on my shoulders, it just feels like you’re playing footy with your mates. It’s good fun.”
As the All Blacks try desperately to deliver on expectations and avoid buckling under the pressure of the chokers tag, the Warriors enter the 2011 Finals with everything to gain and nothing to lose. Well, maybe not nothing.
There’s the fear of repeating last year’s shattering Week One finals exit when a loss to the Titans and other results conspired to end their promising campaign, or the time they had the chance to make the 2008 Grand Final but lost to eventual premiers Manly at the final hurdle. Or when they entered ’09 with a mass of expectations on them but produced one of their worst seasons in years.
But you only have to look at the young faces among the current crop of Warriors to know those mental scars of missed opportunities won’t derail this campaign.
Mannering leads one of the most exciting attacking teams in the competition with some of the best young talent in the game. As a result of the Warriors winning last year’s Toyota Cup premiership, the energy and general oomph in this youthful Warriors side is a major threat to other teams.
“The group of boys we have is awesome. It’s a good thing having those young guys coming through and they definitely push everyone along to get the best out of you,” Mannering explains.
“They’ve done really well in the past few years in the under-20s. They had a lot of success and they’ve brought that into the top grade. A lot of guys have come through our system and taken their opportunity to play first grade with both hands. Shaun Johnson is one, Glen Fisiiahi is another; those guys play full of confidence and their ability really shows out on the field.”
Johnson, who was just 12 when Stacey Jones led the Warriors to the 2002 Grand Final, is one player with the world at his feet but maturity on his shoulders.
“He’s a talent, a real talent. He’s still learning his trade but I’m very impressed with how he’s improved over the weeks,” Mannering, himself quite young at just 25 years of age, says. “Not the big things that everyone has been noticing but the little things like directing the team and defending well. It’s good to see him grow and I’m sure he’ll make the most of his opportunity to play finals football.”
Johnson’s freakish step – off either foot – has become a trademark of the youngster’s blossoming career (just look for the YouTube clip of him playing touch footy).
But unlike the Dad’s Army character on television, this captain Mannering is the youngest in his field and reminded Big League of it when asked if Johnson embarrasses his skipper with the big step at training.
“He tries to but I flatten him every time.”
And unlike the NRL’s oldest captain and this week’s opponent, Darren Lockyer, Mannering doesn’t have a plenitude of grand final experience to call upon, let alone as captain.
Asked if he’d even played in a grand final in his younger days, Mannering was racking his brain.
“I haven’t got the best memory,” he says, adding the endearing ‘ay’ New Zealanders always do. “Maybe when I was younger playing rugby union.”
Well, that’s something.
“But I grew up in a pretty small area so there weren’t many teams to beat,” he adds with a laugh.
Not that it will matter much. Whether the Warriors can go all the way this year is yet to be seen, but they won’t be straying too far from the formula of youth, energy and fun that has made them a real chance for their maiden premiership.