Aware that his side’s season hangs in the balance, Warriors coach Brian McClennan has declared his team ready to make its finals charge with their potent, first-choice spine finally back together for the first time since Round 8.
Last year’s grand finalists have failed to live up to the considerable expectation that surrounded their 2012 season, winning just six of 14 games so far to find themselves sitting precariously in ninth spot on the NRL ladder.
But the return from injury of both fullback Kevin Locke three weeks ago and hooker Nathan Friend for this week’s clash with North Queensland has McClennan predicting his side will storm its way into finals contention over the coming rounds.
“We’ve never had our spine (Friend, Locke, Shaun Johnson and James Maloney) together for any extended period,” McClennan told NRL.com.
“We’ve probably been a little unlucky with injuries but we’ve got everyone back now in terms of our one, nine, six and seven. That gives us stability and cohesion between our players.
“We have been fortunate that we’ve had our young six and seven together for the whole year – but they’re a young six and seven. Now we have a really experienced hooker in Nathan Friend. He is the mainstay of stability in our team now.
“He played enough games for us early in the year so that they know how he plays… and Kevin Locke has cohesion with Shaun Johnson and James Maloney, so that should make us a much better side.”
Key to McClennan’s confidence is his side’s improved defence, which has bordered on horrible at times during the year but has shown notable signs of steeliness in recent weeks.
While halves Johnson and Maloney have been the main culprits with 121 missed tackles between them, McClennan said the Warriors were starting to show the benefits of a recent shift in focus at training.
“Our percentage of training in defence has increased a lot from the beginning of the year to now,” he said. “It’s gone from 50-50 to 70-30 until we get on top of it.
“Really, the last few games we’ve improved a lot in our defence. We’ve made some strides.
“Obviously Billy Slater cut us to ribbons a bit (in Round 13) but he was in exceptional form that day. Other than that we’ve been making some headway there.”
Despite his confidence, McClennan admitted that it was very much a case of ‘now or never’ for the Warriors, who find themselves sitting two points outside the top eight and in danger of falling right away should they lose to an understrength Cowboys outfit at Mt Smart Stadium this Sunday.
“I think for us to get into the top eight, most of our last 10 games are must-win,” he said. “We’ve got to approach it with a mindset of just getting the processes right in our performances. We feel like we’ve been a dominant team in a couple of matches but not been good enough to nail the points. Going forward in these next 10 games, that’s what we need to do. We’ll take any ugly wins along the way, but we need to make sure we get results.
“It’s becoming more and more critical that we make sure we stick to the processes of performing well and are steadfast in what we do.
The Warriors will be buoyed by the fact that they have a history of starting slow and coming home with a rush.
Ironically, they also found themselves sitting in ninth spot on the NRL ladder after 16 rounds last season before winning seven of their final nine games and eventually storming their way into the grand final.
“I see signs that we can head in the right direction,” McClennan added. “At the end of the day you’ve got to get momentum and retain it. And stay healthy.
“Our experience and history does show that we’ve done that, so it’s nice to know. It gives you a bit of confidence. But it starts this week – Sunday at home we’ve got to make sure we put in a really good performance. We know what needs to be done, we’re working hard at it and I’m confident that our team will really start showing that form.”