Incoming Warriors coach Brian McClennan says reputations and 2011 form will count for nothing under his watch, as last year’s brave premiership runners-up embark on their quest to go one better in the NRL in 2012.
Nicknamed ‘Bluey’, the 49-year-old rookie NRL mentor takes the reins of the Warriors from Ivan Cleary after an illustrious coaching ‘apprenticeship’ that featured two English Super League Grand Final wins with Leeds as well as an historic Four Nations title in 2005, when he guided the Kiwis to their first series win over Australia in 27 years.
McClennan told NRL.com today that it would fall to the players to guarantee their spots after their whirlwind 2011 season, when they went within 80 minutes of seizing their maiden NRL premiership.
He added he expected competition would be fierce in plenty of key roles – including fullback, where speedster Kevin Locke dominated last year.
Asked whether Locke had done enough to ward off exciting newcomer Glen Fisiiahi, who had an injury-interrupted 2011, and cement the No.1 jersey, McClennan said: “They will be picked on their merits – and so will everyone else. No-one owns a jersey, they only borrow it, and they have got to make sure they do the best they can to get the chance to wear it again a week later.
“I think it applies for everybody. I think Kevin Locke did an outstanding job. But you know, this season is a new start and he has got to do the best he can do, and be the best he can be. And so does Glen Fisiiahi.
“The player that will play in the No.1 jersey will be the player that we think is preparing themselves the best and playing the best. That’s the way it’s got to be for us coaching staff; we want to make sure that any player we put on the field, that the other 16 players that are in the squad for that particular day feel comfortable that that guy is going to do the job with them.”
McClennan is excited that six under-20s players who helped the Warriors win their second consecutive Toyota Cup title – Ben Henry, Samiuela Lousi, Konrad Hurrell, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Carlos Tuimavave – have made the step up to the main squad.
“It’s a hard step up for them but there are a few of them who can put their hands up,” he said.
McClennan said his goal was to ensure the Warriors became entrenched as a top-four team – aware that recent beaten grand finalists, the Parramatta Eels (2009) and Sydney Roosters (2010), have struggled in their follow-up seasons.
“That’s a challenge it itself,” he said. “I am not sure and I am not even going to try to guess what happened at the other clubs, but I think for us as a club we haven’t been a consistent top-four club, and that’s the challenge.
“Last year was a great effort by everyone involved, and they got on a really good run at the right time of the season – but that hasn’t made us a top-four club. That’s been for Manly and Melbourne and Brisbane – they are the ones that have been consistently there every year.
“Well, that’s got to be our ambition: to be there or thereabouts. And if you can consistently do that every year, and you get to that [late] part of the season and you are healthy, it gives you a better chance of trying to win a premiership.”
McClennan said the Warriors’ trademark offloading game would continue under his guidance, but admitted the side needed to balance flamboyance with discipline to try to reduce their high error counts.
“I think it’s just finding the balance. We want to continue playing [offloading] footy. That’s the culture of the club and I think it’s important that we retain that,” he said.
“It is just a matter of being selective and doing it with good skill and doing it with good supports… it’s important that we keep that up.”
McClennan is thrilled to have Nathan Friend at his disposal; he expected the former Titans hooker to stamp his authority around the ruck and said he would add significant depth after the departure of key players Lance Hohaia and Aaron Heremaia.
“I do think Nathan will be able to bring our big boys onto the ball and get us some momentum there and Shaun [Johnson] and James [Maloney] and Feleti [Mateo] and Kevin Locke can feed off the back of that,” he enthused.
“I know already Nathan has been very valuable to the team with his experience and his professionalism. He is a very good trainer and he crosses all the Ts and dots the Is in his preparation, how he turns up for training, and with his nutrition, how he looks after himself is a great example for our younger guys coming through… already Nathan is proving to be a very valuable member of our squad.”
McClennan said the Warriors would not be drawn into a ‘revenge mentality’ in the lead-up to their first game of the 2012 NRL season – a grand final rematch with the Sea Eagles at Eden Park in Auckland.
“What’s gone is gone now… that is now the past and we certainly won’t be approaching the game as a revenge game,” he said. “It will be the start of a new season and it will be important for us to put in a really good performance and important for us to kick off the first three, four, five games and build some confidence in what we are doing.
“I think it’s important that we just don’t put all our eggs in one basket and get wound up about one game in particular.”
He reserved special praise for the Warriors’ administration.
“It’s terrific – the club’s been run really well from an administration level, management level and coached really well by Ivan and the coaching staff,” McClennan said.
“The NYC with John Ackland has been very successful with winning the last two seasons. The club has done really, really well… it’s in really good shape.”