As is always the case with a side that misses out on achieving goals, thought and planning is already starting to turn to next season and I hope the new administration, led by Jim Doyle, will pick up the lessons that seemed to have been missed in recent years.
The Warriors don’t need to add any more attacking players to their mix – in fact they probably need to offload some. On paper, if you gave every player in the competition, an individual mark out of 10, the Warriors might have a side that adds up to a top eight side. But in reality, despite some serious natural ability, they are a side that lacks balance and polish.
With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke heading to Auckland next season to link up with 2014 Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson, the Warriors have in their spine three of the sport’s premier attacking players. They don’t need to add more attacking weaponry to be a title contender. What they need is to provide those three players the platform and the supporting cast that will allow them to play to their potential. That means a forward pack that goes forward without dropping the ball and that is mobile and structured well enough to earn at least parity in the play-the-ball. It means they need outside backs that don’t have a tendency to drop the ball, give away penalties or are prone to defensive lapses.
A pack containing skipper Simon Mannering, hard-working back-rowers like Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson and a couple of go-forward props like Ben Matulino and Jacob Lillyman is a good start. Add in promising rookies like Sam Lisone and Albert Vete and you go a long way to having one of the better packs in the competition. But depth here is needed. The Warriors look under-strength up front when Matulino in particular is off the field. Lisone and Vete, naturally go through lulls in form, as is normally the case with young forwards. An extra couple of slightly-better than average first grade forwards would make a real difference.
With Johnson and Tuivasa-Sheck the obvious danger men in the back-line, the Warriors need a couple of centres to help the side get their sets going out of dummy half early in the count and some players that will tighten up arguably the worst red zone defensive side in the competition. The likes of Jonathan Wright, Ken Maumalo and David Fusitua are capable wingers but a couple of decent centres would make a huge difference to the Warriors’ fortunes.
To get those extra pieces, the Warriors really could and should offload the big contracts of Manu Vatuvei and Konrad Hurrell. Vatuvei is a club legend and has served the club as well as any player in their 20 years of existence. He deserves favourable treatment but there is no place in a hard-capped competition for sentiment. If a club tries to show some it will actually place them at a disadvantage compared to rival clubs.
Hurrell is the ultimate tease. He showcases skills that few players in the competition have and is one of the most difficult players to tackle in the league. At the other end of the field though, he is not only a poor defender himself but he makes those around him worse. His handling skills are not up to first grade standard and he has earned a reputation in a short space of time as being lazy. There is always the temptation that some of those weaknesses can be improved but how on earth is a first grade coach supposed to teach a 50-game player to catch the ball or look after himself physically? With a roster that contains three of the absolute best attacking players in the world, the easy answer is simply to let another club deal with that problem.
For years the Warriors have struggled to attract the big names to Auckland. Through good management or good luck (with all three hailing from this part of the world originally) they have managed to finally assemble the nucleus of a championship-winning roster – think Johnson, Tuivasa-Sheck, Luke, Mannering, Matulino, Lillyman, Hoffman, Thompson, Leuluai et al. The only way to maximise that talent though is to make full use of the rest of your roster space and that means getting value for money to allow those players to be their best. Some tough calls are needed and that is where you see real leadership.