As I sat in the rain and prepared myself for the final game of the season, all I asked for was an enjoyable 80 minutes. I wanted something to give me hope that 2017 might be different, some sense that next year — the real next year rather than the promise of ‘next year’ — might come close to living up to expectations. I hoped to witness a group of players fully committed to give something back to the fans who braved the weather to watch them one last time in 2016, a group of players who respected the efforts of Thomas Leuluai enough to send him out on a high note, enough to have him kicking a goal from the sideline as time expired while the Mt Smart faithful stood as one to applaud.
But, most of all, I just wanted to smile.
I can’t quite pinpoint the exact reason — maybe it was the lofty expectations, or the fact that what is letting this squad down is not the level of talent but a range of intangible qualities, or maybe it’s just recency bias — but this year the lows have felt lower than ever before.
There’s been some good times, sure. Only a month ago, after back-to-back wins against the Panthers and the Titans, a home playoff game at Mt Smart was still an outside possibility. But then the crumble occurred. The end-of-season crumble that’s becoming all-too-familiar. For no apparent reason. One minute, the Warriors were a team that scrambled on defence and fought hard for each other, the next minute they were so bad that games were lost by halftime.
I could talk about the Parramatta game, about how frustrating it was to watch the men from Mt Smart make things look too easy in the first seven minutes of the most meaningless fixture of the year and then proceed to self-destruct for the following seventy-three minutes. I could single out players who dropped the ball, or those who switched off on defence and others who went missing when the team needed them most. But, if you’re anything like me, it won’t bring you any pleasure at all to revisit what happened on Sunday.
Instead, since the Warriors were only prepared to give us seven minutes of their time, that’s all they are getting from me. My apologies if it takes you longer than that to read these words. Feel free to drop your phone or your laptop as soon as that timer ticks over the seven-minute mark. I won’t be offended.
I’ll be back in 2017, Warriors, but for now, your time is up.
SET OF SIX
A few final thoughts for anyone who hasn’t yet headed for the exit:
1) I wonder how many players in this Warriors squad dream of winning the NRL? Do they close their eyes and imagine what it would feel like to hold the trophy aloft, to sit in the dressing room, covered in a mixture of blood, sweat and champagne, and belt out the victory song with tears in their eyes?
2) Thank you, Thomas. Thomas Leuluai deserved to finish his Warriors career on a much better note than four consecutive losses. He looked absolutely furious after the final whistle, and had every right to be. The casual fan may never know quite how much he brought to this side, but he’ll be sorely missed in 2017.
3) Get on the ISP bandwagon. For anyone who arrived at Mt Smart early, or tuned in to Sky’s coverage of the NSW Cup fixture, you would have witnessed a hard-fought Warriors win. Moving forward to Round 2 of the playoffs, the side welcomes back fringe first-graders like Ken Maumalo, Nathaniel Roache and Bunty Afoa, and has a real chance to continue rolling on. It may not be the finals footy Warrior Nation was hoping for at the beginning of the season, but jump on the bandwagon and let’s see if the club can salvage something from an otherwise disappointing year.
4) How much can this side realistically improve? Assuming the Warriors don’t make any further signings for next season, the starting line-up could be something like: Tuivasa-Sheck, Fusitu’a, Ayshford, Kata, Vatuvei, Lolohea, Johnson, Vete, Luke, Lillyman, Thompson, Hoffman, Mannering. Will the return of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and another off-season together be enough for this side to finally click?
5) The most disappointing thing about 2016 is that the Warriors were making the same mistakes in Round 26 as they were in Round 1. Too many errors, poor reads on defence, unable to give 80 minutes of sustained effort and no clear game plan on either side of the football. While there were signs of improvement during the middle part of the season, the rapid regression so far back to those old habits is a real worry.
6) Give credit to Ryan Hoffman for addressing the fans after the game. Warrior Nation is sick of the talking, but I’m sure the players are too. It wouldn’t have been easy to grab that microphone after that performance, to look up to the stands and see all the empty seats because people had already gone home. You have to appreciate the fact that at least Hoffman, and most of the other Warriors, haven’t tried to hide from the disappointment or make excuses. They know they should have made the playoffs, and they know they let themselves and their fans down. I hope they are hurting. I hope the pain of losing lasts all summer. One can only hope it will motivate them to never want to feel that pain again.
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS