As Isaiah Papalii touched down for the first time in his NRL career, a spark ignited in my brain. Maybe it was the cold air restricting blood flow to my vital organs, but for a split second I thought I was onto something revolutionary, something that could change the game of rugby league, and in turn the direction of the New Zealand Warriors, forever.
These past few weeks in Warrior Nation haven’t been easy. Hold on, let me try that again. These past few years in Warrior Nation haven’t been easy. Six long winters without a taste of finals football, and this year feels like the most disappointing of all. So forgive me if I let my mind wander to a place where things might be better. When the only other alternative is to campaign for the NRL to apply the mercy rule, what choice do I really have?
While this idea started as a joke — or rather one of those pretend jokes that aren’t actually funny but serve to deflect attention away from the pain, to mask the crippling hurt that exists beneath the surface — the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. There must be a way to look at this situation in a positive light. There had to be a way to recalibrate the statistics in the Warriors’ favour. I let the idea percolate on the drive home, but as soon as I was inside my mind began to race.
Last try wins.
It was genius. Imagine it. Instead of a sixth straight loss, Warrior Nation would be celebrating a heroic victory. I know it seems silly, especially now that it’s written down and it’s possible to imagine a multitude of ridiculous scenarios an 80-minute game of last try wins could throw up, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Forget about how it would play out in reality and consider that there are still three more games to go, the Warriors bandwagon is almost empty and we’ve entered a tunnel that gets darker by the day.
The results archive flashed onto my screen, but as I examined the fixture list, my heart sank. The Warriors had scored the last try in only 8 games this season. More wins than their current tally, but still out of the playoff picture.
How about first try?
Getting closer. Twelve wins and on the cusp of the Top 8. A playoff team, maybe, but there was no guarantees.
What if we made all games just one half of 40 minutes? Surely then the men from Mt Smart would be a dominant side?
Eight wins and two draws. Once again, better than their current tally, but not very good.
Let’s try the second half.
The Warriors have outscored their opponent just five times in the second 40.
It was starting to look like this team might not be very good. Demoralised, I stared at the competition ladder. I glanced down at the clock. Today had become tomorrow. I stared at the competition ladder again. Twelfth. Still on 18 points. The For and Against column made ugly reading. And then it hit me harder than the point of Joseph Paulo’s shoulder. It had been right in front of me the whole time.
And there they were. The Warriors tied at the top of the leaderboard, with almost no chance of being surpassed until the first week of the playoffs. For the first time in ages, I looked forward with delight. Just think, by 10pm (NZ time) on Friday, we’ll be an entire game ahead of 12 other teams.
First equal. It’s a wonderful feeling, Warrior Nation. Soak it up while you can — it’s a crazy world out there — you should have learned by now that you can’t take anything for granted in this competition.
SET OF SIX
1) Boring, boring Warriors. In all seriousness, the deeper I dived into the team statistics, the more a pattern emerged. By many statistical measures, the Warriors are a Top 8 side. They’re 6th in the competition in possession and 8th in run metres, with the 4th fewest penalties conceded, the 3rd fewest missed tackles and the 2nd fewest errors — exactly the kind of football Stephen Kearney has been preaching. By those measures, you’d expect to see a fairly consistent side that was hard to break down. Instead, what we find is a team that sits 14th in offloads and 15th in tackle breaks who lacks creativity on attack and therefore struggles to convert their possession into points. The men from Mt Smart might be doing okay on the stats sheet, but they aren’t passing the eye test. Sunday afternoon’s game provided a perfect example. At various times throughout the match, particularly at the start of both halves, the Warriors maintained possession well, built pressure but come away with very little to show for their effort. Canberra, on the other hand, spread the ball from side-to-side early and often, played with confidence and variety in their attack and capitalised as soon as they saw an opening. In all the key moments, the Raiders were ruthless, while the men from Mt Smart were ineffective.
2) Ata Hingano showed signs of brilliance and has been rewarded with a starting spot. Hingano equipped himself well in the early rounds of the season while Kieran Foran was injured and all signs pointed to him being groomed to take on a full-time position in the halves next to Shaun Johnson in 2018. So why has it taken this long to get Hingano into the starting lineup? Mason Lino has an excellent short kicking game, tries hard and has improved steadily every year since he began at the club in the U20s, but how did he jump ahead of Ata in the pecking order? It’s a decision that has been baffling ever since Shaun Johnson’s injury, and one that seems even more indefensible now that it’s been reversed.
3) Watch the ball, Issac. I haven’t been as disappointed with Issac Luke’s season as many others have been, but there’s one thing he does that continues to confuse me, and seems an easy fix. Many of his errors have come while gathering (or not gathering) the ball from dummy half and almost always these mistakes happen because he’s looking away trying to direct traffic at the exact moment the tackled player is playing the ball. When Luke has been decisive in 2017, he’s been one of the best dummy-half runners in the competition, but taking his eye off the ball has proved costly.
4) Does NSW Cup form mean nothing? The Warriors sit second on the NSW Cup ladder, with only 5 losses from their 20 games. You’d think this suggests there’s plenty of depth at the club, but one look at the way Stephen Kearney has used the NSW Cup graduates in the NRL side would suggest he thinks otherwise. Take Chris Satae, who played 10 minutes against Canberra, or Isaiah Papalii, who played 5. Against the Knights, James Bell played only 6 minutes. With the injuries mounting up, and the season dead and buried, isn’t it time to start giving these guys a proper chance to show what they’ve got?
5) Take the opportunity to cheer for a winning team. Speaking of the NSW Cup side, don’t let this team go under your radar. Their final round robin match is the curtain raiser to the club’s final NRL home game of the season and all members of Warrior Nation should make every effort to attend or watch from the comfort of your couch. If they can survive the first round of the playoffs, the men from Mt Smart will have a real shot at the title once the likes of Lino and Hingano rejoin their ranks.
6) Will a change of ownership bring a change of fortunes? It’s hard to comment on whether or not Eric Watson has done a good job as the owner of the Warriors, but it’s fairly clear that things haven’t been going well at the club in recent years. Let’s hope fresh eyes can pinpoint what, or who, is causing this club to consistently underperform, and get things back on track.
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS