Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ivan Cleary’s indignation could finally take no more as his selectorial axe scythed its way through his first grade side, today.

First up, there was a loss to Parramatta. Indignation aplenty, but he chose to forgive. Next, there was the lost opportunity to down West Tiger’s away from home. Indignation must surely have been battening down the hatches to avoid inadvertently letting the axe loose. Then, after an underwhelming effort last Sunday against St George, Cleary let his ire run amok.

Gone for their encounter with Cronulla in Taupo on Sunday are Lance Hohaia, Joel Moon and Brett Seymour. Replacing them are first round debutant Glen Fishiahi at fullback, Bill Tupou onto Kevin Locke’s wing, with Locke banished to the interchange bench, Shaun Berrigan at centre, and Feleti Mateo comes into stand-off with James Maloney moving in one spot to take Seymour’s halfback position.

One of the privileges of having a deep reservoir of player depth is to have the option to dispense with the services of some players, all the while, when necessary, to switch others around within the team for the betterment of a side.

This, Cleary has done, with a myriad of positional changes.

With Jerome Ropati suffering a season ending left knee injury (ruptured crucial ligament), Captain Simon Mannering moves from the second row to cover centre. Mannering and Berrigan will more than cover the defensive duties that will be put up for their attention, but it remains to be seen whether they have the same options on attack as their predecessors. That said, saving a try is often the equivalent of scoring a try.

Fishiahi, brought in to replace Hohaia at fullback, can expect a torrent of bombs to be sent his way after fluffing an attempt at diffusing one in the opening round. But, the young superstar is a resilient character. Famous for his blunder last season in the Toyota cup where he ran the length of the field, but failed to dot down in favour of premature try celebration, only to have an opposition player knock the ball from his grasp, he took the humiliation of the situation in his stride and bounced back with a level-headed assurance that would be the envy of many players greatly more experienced. Not only is he a resolute character mentally, but, he has speed to burn. Which is suited to the open field running of a fullback.

With a noted ball player in the form of Mateo at stand-off, opportunities could well exist for Fishiahi to run off Mateo’s shoulder. Against St George, Mateo was one of the few in an underperforming side to show the capacity for the offload. A bee-line for Mateo, Fishiahi must make.

Of course, none of this can happen without a forward pack that sets a suitable platform. The front rowers have not been making the yards expected of them. After sixty minutes against the Dragons, prop Russell Packer had made only twenty-five metres. While retaining his position, more will be expected of this talented young man from Levin. He is joined in the front row by the bulked-up Jacob Lillyman, while regular starter, Sam Rapira, travels back to the reserve bench.

Coming in to fill Mateo’s vacant second-row position is Ukuma Ta’ai, who gets his first appearance in a Warriors jersey for 2011. A talented ball runner who can also offload, he will be a straight replacement for Mateo in the sense that both are noted attacking weapons. Ta’ai will join forces with Lewis Brown, one of the Warrior’s few shining lights this season, in the second row.

Joining Locke, Rapira and Ben Mautalino on the bench is Elijah Taylor, who debuted early last season before having his year destroyed with a serious knee injury.

For Cleary, he can only hope that all the changes will bring about a positive result up against a Cronulla outfit that is on a roll after defeating St George, and then giving Penrith a 44-12 annihilation in their previous two matches. Cronulla possess a hardnosed pack of forwards and will not easily be out-muscled.

Changes aplenty there may be, but, in the end, it is still thirteen against thirteen, and the time is fast approaching for the New Zealand Warrior’s to get their season back on track.

Monday, March 28, 2011

It was a hat-trick that set the tone for the New Zealand Warriors. A treble that would define their eighty minutes of footballing endeavour. Possibly, it may even have taken them down their path of destiny for the 2011 season.

Their opposition for the occasion, St George, did their utmost to assist the Warrior’s in their hat-trick escapades in front of 11651 fans at Mt Smart Stadium.
Errors in the form of dropped ball were helping them accrue a handy lead early on in the fixture. It was a lead that was never to be surrendered as they dominated play and one that never looked like being seriously challenged by their rival.

The extra possession worked a treat as they punched holes in their foes defensive line with relative ease. Offloading at will they were, with a desperate opponent seemingly at a loss to come to grips with their strength in the tackle, thus finding no satisfactory solution to closing down the ball carrier’s room to offload.

It was creating problems all over the park and it told on the scoreboard. For, come the 25th minute, three mistakes from the Warriors and St George had acquired themselves an 18-0 lead.

The home side came with the best of intentions, and for the first couple of defensive sets, they ripped into the Dragons. Three men could be seen in the tackle regularly. Clear, it was, that they had come with the objective of imposing their will on a St George side that had taken a pounding in the previous round from an on-fire Cronulla side.

Whatever the effects of six days ago, St George commandeered all their mental and physical strength. First, the mental as they took everything dished out to them, then the physical, as they quickly absorbed the fire and brimstone of the Warriors and set about stamping their own mark on the game.

Didn’t take them long either. In fact, only four minutes as they made the most of a fumble by Sam Rapira. St George halfback, Jamie Soward has come a long way under the tutelage of coaching great Wayne Bennett. Gone are the days of inconsistent play on his part. Now, he produces each and every week. A bag full of tricks, he possesses, too. Whether it be a cut-out pass, the ability to put his outside backs through a gap in the defence, a momentum changing 40/20, or perhaps, a fifth tackle bomb on the opposition’s goal line with pinpoint accuracy. On this particular occasion he chose the latter as he launched a bomb that came down within half a metre of the Warriors goal line for winger Jason Nightingale to out leap Lance Hohaia and dive over two metres to the side of the right upright for the first of his tries for the day.

The two aforementioned protagonists had lead roles in the next major chapter of the contest some nine minutes later. Earlier it had been Rapira guilty of poor ball security. Now it was Hohaia’s turn to cough up the pill. This gave Nightingale a chance to add to his try scoring tally. First, though, he would have to dispense some unwanted company in the form of James Maloney.

Maloney, a cheeky halfback type with a lot to say for himself isn’t that fond of flashy opposition wingers. Not the types to get along too well, really. Unfortunately for Maloney though, the twain did meet fleetingly as Nightingale bumped him off with considerable ease on his way to his second try of the afternoon. With Soward’s conversion they were now up 12-0 and looking like good things.
The Warriors good defence early on had made a hasty departure, as St George made ground wherever they ventured. Up the middle of the ruck, out wide, it didn’t matter where they went, territory was to be found. Former Warrior Nathan Fien was having a great time of it, darting out of dummy-half, toying with his former team mates, making yards that were having Warriors players backpedalling at a great rate of knots.

None of this impressed Warriors coach, Ivan Cleary, though, as he hooked centre Joel Moon from the field in the 20th minute. He only got back on sometime later due to a knee injury to his centre partner Jerome Ropati. It doesn’t bode well for one’s future tenure in a position, though, to be taken from the field this early in the match. Perhaps an opportunity exists for young up and coming star, Elijah Taylor, in the weeks to come.

St George soon got their hat trick of tries from the hat trick of errors on the part of the Warriors, as big off-season buy, Feleti Mateo, disrespected the steeden in the 25th minute. Fien, again, did damage as he fractured the dummy half defence of the locals and sped his way up the centre. The little maestro Soward was again on hand to direct proceedings as he navigated play to their left side attack leaving Matt Cooper to dive over in the corner despite the best efforts of three hangers-on.
So, 18-0 up and St George had totally dominated. Here we had two sides in the same competition, but two sides, certainly at this stage, consisting of abilities at different ends of the spectrum.

The Dragons, a well oiled machine going about their work in an efficient manner, committing limited errors, getting to the end of sets of six in a no nonsense mode with a excellent long kicking game on the part of Soward who invariably finds turf unaccompanied by opposition backs. And then there is, more often than not, a professional kick chase put into operation which all sides should aspire to. All for one and one for all, with this lot.

This is most unlike the Warriors of present who struggle to complete a set of six at times without the inevitable handling errors. When they do get to a last tackle kick it seems to go down the opposing fullback’s throat with monotonous regularity.

Last week the Warriors struggled with their kicking game as regular kicker, Maloney, was missing due to suspension. Back this week, he was, and yet nothing had improved.
It was now becoming clear, for whatever reason, this was a side that was out of sorts. Their A-Game had deserted them. Confidence had upped sticks and sort out others it thought of as more deserving.

Self doubt had entered their world. Try as they might, nothing seemed to work. The only surprise was that St George were unable to put any further points on the Warriors for the remainder of the half.

Even more surprising was the fact that the home side actually scored in the 48th minute when Ben Mautalino crashed over to score under the crossbar.

Surprising, really, because the Warriors had, to that point, shown absolutely nothing on attack. The majority of the time their last tackle play seemed to consist of a high kick to one of their wingers.

In fact, it seemed that their attacking fortitude more resembled a ne’ve do well, such was the apparent ineptitude spouting from their attacking tentacles.

That said, at 18-6, there was a sniff of hope, if they could find a way into St George’s in-goal area. A match of it they could then make. It wasn’t to be, though.

Instead it was the visitors who extended their lead after gratefully pouncing on a Hohaia error in his red zone.

After copious amounts of offloading on the part of the Dragon’s, they soon spread the pill to the left side attack of Brett Morris. Even under duress he was able to offload to Kyle Stanley who dived over in the left corner to extend the lead, with a Soward conversion, to 24-6 after fifty-three minutes.

Four tries to St George and all four coming immediately after errors on the part of the locals. An obvious pattern there, one would suggest. If only the Warrior’s could hang onto the ball and get parity of possession. Maybe, then, they could at least make a game of it.

Eventually it came on the end of a string of penalties. Surprisingly not one was awarded in the first half to either side. Now was the chance the Warriors had waited so long for. Momentum was starting to swing the home side’s way. Feleti Mateo was putting himself about. Doing his damndest to turn things around, he was. Now, instead of St George being responsible for all the offloading, it was Mateo doing his bit for his side. Along with the likes of Mautalino-who was the best on the park for the home side- and Lewis Brown, they forged ahead, taking control for a ten minute period from the 65th minute.

With all the possession against them, St George committed a series of penalties, which eventually forced referee Ben Cummings to send Cooper to the sin-bin. One man down and with no ball for much of this time, it was only a matter of when, not if the Warriors would score. And sure enough it came in the 74th minute as Shaun Berrigan crossed to touch down next to the left upright. With the conversion from Maloney and the score back to within two converted tries, there was a slim chance of sending the match into extra time.

That it didn’t materialise was in part due to Soward kicking a field goal in the 77th minute. 25-12 and the game was now beyond the Warriors.

Soward had well and truly stomped on the comeback embers that had glimmered ever so slightly for the Warrior’s over the last quarter of the match.

Now they are 0-3 and planted firmly to the nether regions of th
e points table. A long way back from here for them, it is. Not necessarily impossible, though. Bigger turnarounds have embellished the great game of rugby league. Penrith, in 2003, lost their opening five matches of the season and then went on a winning rampage of twenty-three matches to win the premiership.

So, done before, it clearly has been.

And it may well need to be in the future, too.

Come what may, the only way out of this for the New Zealand Warriors is hard work and perseverance.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wild unpredictability is the New Zealand Warriors master and commander.

Last week they met their master. This week, it was their commander that appeared, to front them, in the form of the West Tigers, handing them a 20-12 defeat at Leichthart Oval last night.

Not just week to week are the Warriors hard to fathom, but, within the space of eighty minutes one never can be too sure what they may bring to the table.

For, no sooner had they forced the Tigers into an error within the home sides own twenty, than they became a hive of disdain for the valuable commodity of ball security by dropping ball or forcing unnecessary passes on the first tackle.

Many was the time that hard working forwards carved good metres up the middle of the ruck only for all the good work to be undone by an impetuous offload by one of their number.

And yet, in between times, there was some admirable work achieved. Particularly after the twenty minute mark when the Warriors forwards began to forge their way up the middle of the ruck, instead of carting the ball up two wide of the ruck as they did for much of the opening quarter, they were able to dominate.

This in turn allowed halves Brett Seymour and Isaac John to put some deft chip kicks into the Tigers red zone, thus trapping the Tigers in their in-goal area and gaining possession from the restart.

Despite the Warriors controlling matters between the 20th and 30th minutes, it was the home side that opened the scoring in the 33rd minute after centre Chris Lawrence ran on to a sweetly timed short pass from Benji Marshall. All that was left for Lawrence to do was to scythe his way through the brittle defence of Jerome Ropati and Kevin Locke to score in the left corner.

Which, he duly did.

A 6-0 lead to the Tigers did not last long as Warriors Captain, Simon Mannering, barged his way over to dot down in the 37th minute. Seymour converted to bring the score level at 6 a piece going into half-time.

Which was a fair indication of proceedings thus far. Both sides had had their moments, but neither could break the shackles and roam free of the other as each searched for their opening win of the season.

If the encounter hadn’t scaled any great heights to this point, a figure new to Warriors colours this year was about to provide the keen observer with something to remember.

Some people never want to grow up. Peter Pan like, they much prefer the fun stuff in life. A flick pass, a banana kick, maybe a seventy metre intercept try allowing them to thunder their way along the green expanses in search of that horizon more commonly known as the opposition’s in-goal area. Much better than all that conservative boring stuff like tackling, helping your forwards out by carting the ball out of your own half, you know.

Take Kristian Inu, for example. It’s not that he shirks the core values of the conservative side of the game. On the contrary, he does his share willingly.

And does it well, too.

It’s just that it is way more fun to put in a clever grubber kick only inches from the touchline, run around his opposite to regather the ball and pass it back in field, as he is falling over the touchline, for a teammate to continue on towards the try line. When said teammate is tackled two metres short of goal line, Inu, sensing a chance to shine, scampers into dummy half, gathers ball, throws a dummy to his right, then runs to the left two metres to dive over in the left corner for a try that one would never think he could land.

All this he did in the 49th minute. Made it all look so simple, too.

With Seymour’s conversion, the Warriors had jumped to a 12-6 lead and had taken a partisan crowd that was packed to the rafters out of the equation.

The visitors were on top, now. Which made a 56th minute drop goal attempt by Seymour seem all the more strange. Sure, it had been a close game up until this point, but, in the end, all it served to do was inform the Tigers that his outfit didn’t rate themselves to go on with the job of securing a victory through scoring tries.

And so it proved, as the Tigers grew an arm and a leg, as they powered their way to a decisive come from behind victory.

Benji Marshal and Robert Lui are like two peas in a pod. Always darting, weaving, looking for appropriate times to mesmerise their opposition with clever footwork. They both delight in throwing the deftest of short passes, too.

First, it was Lui, in the 62nd minute, who put Blake Ayshford into a gap, with a blinder of a short pass, to go over twenty metres wide of the right upright. Somehow Marshall managed to miss the conversion. He may be fleet of foot when it comes to running through opposition defences, but, his goal kicking is not his strong point.
Not long after, it was Marshall who took it upon himself to instigate havoc in the Warriors right side defence as he put Simon Dwyer into a hole with a well timed pass that sent the centre crusading down the left side attack of the Tigers in search of the winning try.

It was not to be, for him, though. Even so, the Warriors defence was shot to pieces. Seeing this, Marshall, from the ensuing play, soon spread the steeden across field into the waiting arms of Robbie farrah who stepped off his right foot, beguiling numerous defenders, and darted ten metres to hoist his side to a 16-12 lead.

The Warriors were still in with a chance with twelve minutes to go, but, the tide of possession had turned against them in the final quarter. When they did get an opportunity, errors crept back into their game. Their best football was behind them for this day. Try as they might to retain the pill, they almost compulsively handed possession back to the Tigers at every available moment.

And in the 74th minute, a knock-on from the Warriors in their red zone gave Marshall a chance to orchestrate the winning of the match. Which he gleefully took as he had Lawrence run onto a short pass out wide on their left side attack to go over for his second try of the night in the left corner and seal the win.

They had left it late, but in the end, they came home the stronger despite having suffered from a shortage of possession for the middle forty minutes of the game.

For the Warriors, it was the one that got away. They should have won, could have won, but due to a litany of unforced errors, never won.

Oh how their coaching staff would dearly love to discover the formula to consistency for a team with undoubted talent at their beck and call.

Doubtless, a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle, they are. No one has quite managed to solve the enigma that is the New Zealand Warriors. If only someone could master this puzzle. A sleeping giant awaits a pending engagement with greatness. Surely a gentle prod would provoke a reaction. It’s not like they’re in a deep coma.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


It was a thunderous snap that, figuratively speaking, could be heard around Eden Park by 38412 adoring fans.

A snap that, in a moment’s mayhem, those same adoring fans will be hoping will not turn out to be a metaphor for the New Zealand Warriors 2011 NRL season as superstar winger Manu Vatuvei lay helpless on his left wing having just snapped a medial ligament in his right knee.

Certainly, one could have been forgiven for thinking it had some ulterior meaning as the home side went down to the Parramatta Eels, 24-18.

Can’t take a break, can the big fella. Playing for the Kiwi’s in their first match of the international series at the end of 2010, Vatuvei broke his arm early on in the first match of the tournament. Now, fate was having its way with the Warriors talisman again. And only fourteen minutes into proceedings, too.

Eerie symmetry, it was for the man mountain Vatuvei. Those long torturous summer months of hard slog, toiling away running, cycling, pounding his way through hill sprints and the like, all done in the hope of a better than ever season, brought to a temporary halt as one bone crunching tackle from a venomous foe put paid to the endeavours of a trimmed down Vatuvei.

The life of a professional footballer- it can be a soul destroying existence.

If the plight of the popular Vatuvei wasn’t bad enough for the home side, it had only added to the torment as Parramatta, in the 6th minute, had already enjoyed a profitable foray into the Warrior’s territory. No thanks to one half of the Eels halves pairing in Jeff Robson. Dreamers, schemers, plotters, that's what halves are. Thinkers, talkers, doers, the lot of them, they are. Not that the opposing sides forwards appreciate their presence. In their eyes, they are nothing but treacherous little leaches that do their utmost to suck the animation out of their defensive line. To them Robson was no different as he spied an opportunity from two metres out, and without a moment’s hesitation, stepped off his right foot and slinked his way through some flimsy defence to dot down.

So, not a good start for the Warriors, in more ways than one.

While Parramatta were steady and workmanlike, making good metres up the middle of the ruck, all the while providing a commendable showing of solid defence when the Warriors had the steeden, the same couldn’t be said of the locals.

Right from the off, the Warriors exuded an unpleasant aroma of error infested play that seeped steadily from their footballing pores. For, they carried the ass for much of the first half. A knock-on here, a misdirected pass there. Their night, it wasn’t. It’s not as if they weren’t trying. Indeed, they tried mightily. Simply, the execution was not of the required level.

This they found out in the 31st minute, when Robson’s partner in crime, Daniel Mortimer, put up a bomb with pin point accuracy into the Warriors in-goal area. That region can be an interesting depository for a meeting place as an eclectic mix of personalities litter it space. From the defensive players, with the chip on their shoulder, that cannot tolerate the notion that anyone would dare to attempt an invasion into what they believe should be their own private inner sanctum, to the brazen attackers, jealous of what untold riches may lay in store for them. If only they could penetrate the steely defences of their more conservatively minded enemy.
Well, penetrate they did as Jarrod Hayne managed to breach the Warriors security and regather Mortimer’s bomb to touch down and extend the Eels lead to 14-0.

New Parramatta coach, Stephen Kearney, must have thought this coaching caper was mere child’s play. Not that hard, really. What was everyone going on about? Anyone can do this, surely. Warriors coach, Ivan Cleary, on the other hand, must have been sorely tempted to do his best impersonation of 16th century namesake, Ivan the Terrible, and replace some players, permantly. After thirty-one minutes they were still dropping high balls, throwing wayward passes, dropping ball in the tackle. Oh, how sorely the coach’s patience must have been tested.

Luckily for the playing personnel, though, in the 36th minute, Jerome Ropati scored in the left corner. With James Maloney’s conversion and the margin reduced to eight points, all was not lost. The coach’s wrath had been avoided. At least, temporarily, it was.

They could go into the break with the knowledge that, having played as far from their potential as they possibly could, they were only a converted try to the south of their foe.

A comeback would not be a impossibility for a side with such a vast expanse of talent at their disposal.

Then again, maybe that was being a touch on the hopeful side, as in the 45th minute, a grateful Luke Burt scooped up the loose ball from a mistake by rookie winger Glen Fisiiahi, to dive over in the left corner. To add salt to the wound of the young debutant, Burt kicked a superb sideline conversion to extend the score out to 20-6.

Not content to limit his input into proceedings to ten points, the veteran winger decided that the 57th minute would be a mighty fine time to score his 109th career try. Once again, it was in the left corner. Unlike his previous effort, he could not convert for an extra two points.

A 24-6 lead was not to be sneezed at though. Parramatta could smell an unlikely victory. No one had expected them to beat the Warriors, an outfit many are picking to be contenders come the first weekend of October. The Eels had come with the intention of doing the basics correctly. You know, that boring stuff that, while not fancy, wins games. Like making the hard yards up the middle, being aggressive in defence, retaining possession.

And they were being helped by a Warriors outfit that was not responding well to the pressure of the situation. At one stage Lance Hohaia could be seen to throw the ball away in disgust when refereeing decisions did not go his teams way.

While the Warriors may have come with good intentions, they had been mentally flat for sixty-five minutes. Perhaps they had been over-confident. If so, now was the time to forgo complacency, bite the bullet and admit to themselves, that for a good majority of the match they had been outplayed by a superior opponent. Give credit where credit was due, but, at the same time, realise they could, with the correct application, fight their way back into the encounter.

All they needed was a chance. And Parramatta handed them that opening in the 66th minute when they knocked-on in their own red zone. From the ensuing play, the Warriors spread the ball wide to their left side attack, whereupon Hohaia threw a wonderful little cut-out pass to Ropati, who was filling in for the injured Vatuvei on the left wing, to score within inches of the sideline. With Maloney’s conversion, they were back in the hunt at 24-12.

The tide was turning. For much of the match, Parramatta had had a monopoly on territory and possession. Admittedly, the Warriors, in part, were to blame for that.
The winds of fortune, though, were a changing. Blowing up a pretty strong gale, they were.

It was now the home side that was making ground up the middle of the park with consummate ease. Shaun Berrigan, one of the Warriors big off-season buys, was in thick of it. If he wasn’t darting out of dummy half, he would be out wide trying desperately to orchestrate an attacking raid down one of the wings.

Eventually, the extra possession they had come in to started to pay dividends. They were now continuously mounting raids in their adversary’s twenty metre zone. It had to pay, soon. And it did in the 72nd minute when Maloney put up a bomb on the 5th tackle. The Eels failed to control it, thus leaving a gleeful Lewis Brown to snatch the ball and quick as a flash, dot down for a crucial four pointer.

With the gap back to six points, the Warriors surged ahead in search of an equaliser and the chance to send the game into extra time.

Alas, it was not to be.

They had left their run too late. And, in all honesty, it would have been a travesty if the Warriors had managed a win here. Parramatta were worthy winners. They had dominated for much of the match. Deviate from what was a simple but effective game plan, they did not. It will win them plenty more matches this season. Having said that, come September, they will be on the edge of the eight. Nothing more. 2011 will not be their year.

It could be for the Warriors, though. That is, if they curb their tendency for under estimating the opposition every so often.

But maybe a poor performance tonight was what they needed to get their minds fully concentrating on the job ahead.