Here at NRL Warrior HQ, I’m a little too frustrated to come up with an interesting anecdote this week, too downcast to wade through the darkness in search of a glimmer of sunshine. So, instead, I’ve decided to change things up: it’s question time.
In an ideal world, I’d like to ask a bunch of questions and have them answered immediately, but, since I couldn’t find an SP Kearney in the White Pages, you’ll have to picture an imposing man nodding his head slowly with his arms crossed while you read the questions and then use your imagination to come up with the answers. Full disclosure — I have so many questions about this season, recent events and the future, I decided to stick with the Set of Six format, focused largely around Friday night against Souths, mainly because I think it’s about all any of us can take right now. Then when I’d written six questions, I had to throw in one more. And then another. I also decided to treat this as a press conference, so all questions are directed at Stephen Kearney, although I appreciate some of the questions relate to the organisation as a whole. Here goes:
1) Stephen, I’ve been puzzled by your use of the bench all season. Can you explain how you view the role of bench players in the game today? As an example, talk us through why you decided to include both a half AND a hooker on the interchange against Souths? On top of that, when you lost your most experienced prop to injury, it seemed as though you played your two bench props even fewer minutes than normal (20 and 13 minutes respectively)? Do you think your lack of forward-pack rotation has played any part in your side’s dreadful second-half record this season?
2) Stephen, after slumping to your seventh consecutive loss, you mentioned in the after-match interviews that, largely due to injuries, you are having to field players who are not yet up to NRL standard. While I do sympathise with you regarding injuries — the loss of a full front-row rotation in Gavet, Matulino, Vete and now Lillyman, plus Bodene Thompson and Shaun Johnson would certainly test the depth of any club – I’m very curious as to who those players are. From what I can tell, aside from Blake Ayshford and Kieran Foran, the entire starting lineup from Friday night’s fixture (and Charlie Gubb) featured in Game 1 of the season. That leaves just three players who weren’t involved in the first squad you selected as coach of the New Zealand Warriors: Tevita (Chris) Satae, who in recent weeks you have been selecting ahead of Ligi Sao (who you re-signed to another two year contract) and Toafofoa Sipley (who had an encouraging NRL debut last season and has been deemed by Manly to be good enough for an NRL deal in the coming years). There’s also Mason Lino, who you selected ahead of Ata Hingano in every game prior to this one since Shaun Johnson went down injured, and who you suggested would do a good job next week if required. So that leaves Jazz Tevaga, who probably didn’t have his best outing at the NRL level, but who seemed more than capable of footing it in the big time in 2016 when he featured in about half the club’s games. I’m a little confused, can you give me another hint as to who you mean, or am I missing something?
3) Hi Stephen, it’s me again. I’m wondering if you’ve ever been involved with a football team who appears to lose confidence in themselves as quickly as this Warriors side? Your squad has been one of the more disciplined teams in the competition in terms of ball security, errors and penalties conceded and, most surprisingly, missed tackles. You would think that this tight brand of football would instil some level of confidence in each other, but it seems that as soon as the opposition scores a try, heads drop and anything good that happened previously is forgotten. Can you pinpoint why this is happening? Earlier in the season you talked about marching people out the door if you saw anyone not trying, but I assume that since you haven’t done that, effort is not the issue?
4) Stephen, we just touched on your side’s structured brand of football, and you’ve mentioned at various times during the season that the Warriors have been unable to convert sustained possession into points on the scoreboard. Your team made an electric start to Friday night’s fixture, and continued to find success in the first half by spreading the ball wide early in the tackle count and attacking the Rabbitohs two and three players wide of the ruck. It appeared that Souths made a concerted effort to apply more defensive pressure in the centre of the park after the break, but instead of continuing to pass the ball a little wider, your team became a lot more one-dimensional. Was there any reason you went away from this tactic in the second half? And did those first 12 minutes of the game give you any ideas about how you might like to shape your attacking structures for the remaining two matches and the 2018 season? Will we ever see Warrior-ball again?
5) Stephen, how much focus does your squad put on numbering up on defence? Have you ever been involved with a football side that seems outnumbered on the edges as much as this Warriors team? You were involved with Melbourne for a number of years, have you considered showing Roger Tuivasa-Sheck some footage of Billy Slater? Perhaps the off-ball camera shots that demonstrate how much he organises the defensive line?
6) Stephen, it appeared that Kieran Foran couldn’t walk at any point following the 65th minute, but it took until the 73rd minute before you substituted him from the field. During this time, South Sydney scored two tries — one when they ran the ball on the last and the Warriors found themselves terribly outnumbered after the markers failed to retreat back and Blake Ayshford had tracked in-field to cover for the injured Foran, and another when Alex Johnston simply ran around a hobbling Foran. I appreciate the game was probably decided before this moment, but was there any particular reason why you left a clearly injured player on the field for so long?
7) Stephen, I know this isn’t solely your department, but before you go, can I just ask when we can expect some player signing news? I appreciate that the uncertainty around ownership may be making things difficult, but from what I can tell, the only significant ‘Ins’ for next season are Tohu Harris and Leivaha Pulu, while Kieran Foran, Ben Matulino, Toafofoa Sipley and Manu Vatuvei have signed elsewhere, and Charlie Gubb, Ryan Hoffman, Jacob Lillyman and Bodene Thompson look set to leave also. Will the Warriors have any props next season? It would be a shame to think the club had to start the season with any of their top 25 players who were not yet up to the rigours of the NRL.
8) Stephen, will we ever win again?
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS