Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Melbourne Storm was a club in disarray twelve months ago.

Busted by salary cap auditor, Ian Schubert, for years of systematically cheating the cap, Melbourne were at their lowest ebb in the club’s sixteen year history.

Stripped of their points for 2010, and also of their premiership title three years earlier, the humiliation for them was complete. It wasn’t just the administration that had to suffer the accusations; the coaching staff and players were in the firing line, too.

Weeks of endless stories in the public domain, accusing anyone and everyone, eventually got to them. Performance declined with nothing to play for, along with the knowledge that many of their playing staff of the time would be forced to leave the club due to the financial restraints Melbourne would now have to work within.

The rebuilding process would be a long process, they knew. Competitive they may still be, but without that solid second tier of talent to keep the team afloat in times of injury, they couldn’t possibly dominate to the extent they had previously.

Could they?

Well, here they are twelve months down the track and on top of the NRL ladder. A mild winter’s day has passed us by and Melbourne has beaten the New Zealand Warriors 16-8, at Mt Smart Stadium. There was no Greg Inglis. Ryan Hoffman has gone. Brett Finch has moved on. There are others, too, that had to be released.

Instead, it’s the likes of Dane Nielsen, Gareth Widdop, Ryan Hinchcliffe and Kevin Proctor. They are hardly what you would refer to as household names.

At least they weren’t until Storm Coach, Craig Bellamy, got his hands on them and set about turning what were considered journeymen, into top class players. Sure, he still has his three stars in Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk to help the cause. Yet, he often manages to find a way to get his team across the line when the big three are missing.

Bellamy is just that good. Make no mistake; he is one of the best coaches going around. In his time in Brisbane as an assistant coach, he learnt from master coach, Wayne Bennett.

He may yet turn out to be better than what Bennett is.

Any team of Bellamy’s is well drilled. Errors are kept to a minimum. Nothing fancy is attempted unless it is truly a viable option.

It’s simple really. Run from dummy half, commit defenders. If there is an opportunity to put someone through a it. Otherwise use the kiss method for the first two to three tackles of a set before finding space out wide. If none exists, put in a kick and play the game in the opposition half.

They graft away, slowly grind the opposition down. As teams weary of the constant flow of pressure that the Cameron Smith led unit exert,The Storm pounce on the inevitable errors that come their way.

And they always do. Just ask Lance Hohaia. Twice he either let the ball bounce or dropped the pill. Both times Storm players were there to take advantage. Two mistakes on the part of The Warriors, and two tries to The Storm.

Melbourne takes their chances, which come about from having a plan that they adhere too.

The New Zealand Warriors, on the other hand, spent eighty minutes giving the impression that they were playing ad-lib football.

Wonder how Craig Bellamy would react if his side took that approach?

Melbourne Storm 16 (Billy Slater 2, Gareth Widdop tries; Cameron Smith 2 goals) New Zealand Warriors 8 (Lance Hohaia try; James Maloney 2 goals). Halftime: 10-2.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Redemption is the bedrock of the future.

After all, we’ve all made mistakes in life. Some, more so than others.

Warrior’s halfback, Brett Seymour, could tell you a fair bit about making a hash of life’s opportunities. He could also expound on being given a second chance, and the need to make the most of it.

Not only that, but after the Auckland based franchise went out on a limb for him, securing a home for him in the NRL once again, he has done his utmost to make every post a winner.

Kicked out of both Brisbane and Cronulla for alcohol related offences, and after some time in the wilderness, Warrior’s management took the plunge – with the blessing of the NRL administration – and signed Seymour on.

It was a risk on their part, that’s for sure. There were conditions within the twenty-six year olds contract to prevent any of his now legendary after hour’s activities that led to such infamy.

One of those stipulations’ being that he was not to consume alcohol at any time.

By all accounts, he has been a model citizen ever since he arrived in Auckland.

Not a drop touched. Not an incident of ill-repute on his part.

He’s done well.

But, let’s not for a minute think there hasn’t been temptation waiting in the wings for the talented playmaker.

How could there not be?

Temptation has never been one to lie back and let an idle moment go by. It has always hid in the dark, lurking there with menacing intent, waiting for the opportune time to have its murky endeavours invited into an unsuspecting foes life.

It may be an enemy, but it desperately aspires to an up close and personal relationship with anyone and everyone.

And disguise itself as a friend, it does often, and very cleverly too.

The boy from Mackay, Queensland has had plenty of moments since his debut for the Warrior’s in March last year to rescind on his good ways and err into sin.

There have been injury enforced layoffs. Got injured during the first game of 2010 with a broken thumb, he did. He could have gone off the rails, right then.

It’ll be alright, that friend is somewhere near. Lock and load, have a beer.

Seymour didn’t though.

Instead he admirably restrained the urge to travel back in time. Forwards was all he had eyes for. The vista looked pretty darn good to him. What could be better than living the dream of playing professional football? Not much, it seems, as Seymour set about steering the Warrior’s around the park once his injury thumb had recovered.

And a fine job of it he did too.

By the end of the season it seemed that the stars had aligned for Seymour. All was well in his world. Warrior’s Coach, Ivan Cleary, had, at last, found a top flight halfback that the club had been desperately searching for since Stacey Jones left to ply his trade in England.

Seymour’s future in the city of sails appeared to be assured.

That is until early in the fourth week of this season when Cleary sent shock waves through his side by dumping numerous players, including Seymour, for poor form.

Again, he took it on the chin, kept a low profile and battled his way back. No sign of any recidivist behaviour from Seymour.

Hey, maybe he’s just matured. Perhaps time away from the rugby league hotbed that is Sydney has done him the world of good. And sure enough, there was the nuggety number seven forcing his way back into starting line-up a couple of rounds later.

Nothing could get this guy down. Temptation had been given ample chance to show Seymour a mighty fine time.

It was being halted at every turn.

And, then a double whammy struck him smack bang on the nose. First the coaching staff decided that Seymour was surplus to requirements for 2012. If that wasn’t enough to finally tip him over the edge, along came yet another injury and the past three weeks on the sideline.

Could nothing go his way?

Surely now he couldn’t turn down the pleasure of his old ways. So much fun to have, so many different ways to go about it. And yet the man keeps on disappointing those who fawn over gossip and innuendo.

He just will not give those poor souls a break. They must be miserable.

Not Seymour, though. Instead of wallowing in the realms of despair, here he is back in the side to play the Melbourne Storm tomorrow at Mt Smart.

Yep, he’s got himself well and truly sorted out.

Redemption is his to saviour.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

With all the speculation over Ivan Cleary’s future of late, is it affecting his side’s on-field performance?

A legitimate question, given their run of three losses on the trot, which has coincided with the recent speculation over Cleary’s future at the club and whether he will be coaching Penrith in 2012.

Surely, it cannot be helping the mindset of the playing staff.

Not knowing one’s future doesn’t do much for the headspace of a player. In their minds, if they suspect there may be a new coach on the way in, they can’t help but wonder if their future is secure.

It is only human nature, after all.

Before their current losing streak, the Warriors had been one of the form teams of the competition, with seven wins from eight matches.

Then, suddenly, that rich vein of form disappeared.

Some will argue that the appearance of rookie halfback, Shaun Johnson, has been the overriding issue with the unit’s poor for.

Cleary, it seems agrees as he has demoted Johnson to the interchange bench and brought back Brett Seymour in a raft of changes to the starting line-up for Sunday’s encounter with the Melbourne Storm.

Out with injury are Kevin Locke and Glen Fishiahi. In their place come Lance Hohaia and Bill Tupou. Captain, Simon Mannering, returns to the second row to bolster the mid field defence in the absence of Michael Luck, with Shaun Berrigan filling the vacant centre position.

And off for a break in the New South Wales Cup is Kristian Inu, who was at his erratic worst against North Queensland. Lewis Brown comes off the bench to take Inu’s position.

While some of the changes have been necessitated by injury, others seem to have a whiff of panic about them. Leaving aside Inu, who in all probability deserves a boot up the backside with a spell playing for the Auckland Vulcans. His kick out on the full from a restart was inexcusable and started the rot in the second half against the Cowboys.

Not as easy to comprehend is putting Johnson back to the bench. Sure, it could be argued that Seymour will provide a steady head under pressure and steer the team around the park better. But in reality Johnson did very little wrong in his three appearances. And it is hard to blame him for the run of losses.

Against the Roosters, on debut, there wasn’t a lot he could do in what were atrocious conditions with heavy rain for the entirety of the match. Given that, a new halves pairing of Johnson and James Maloney, the fact that the Warriors had the bye the previous week, it was always going to be tough.

For sixty minutes in their contest with Wests Tigers they did a perfectly fine job of dominating their foe. Johnson scored a try, his kicking game was good and his support play was top rate. If he clocked off after sixty minutes, then he was only one of seventeen.

And then there was his long range try in Townsville. What a sight to behold that was. Put simply, if he hadn’t run sixty metres to score what was one of the individual long range tries of the season, the Warriors would have been shut out of the match much sooner than what was to eventuate.

As for Mannering returning to the forwards, that may plug one perceived hole and open another. Luck is a huge loss to this side, but his replacement, Elijah Taylor, did a sterling job. Despite a job well done on the part of Taylor, Mannering may well be an even better bet.

Having said that, will any improvement from having the skipper back in the middle of the ruck outweigh any potential threat to a weakened backline defence? Proberly not.
They stand to lose more than they gain. A fine player Berrigan has been. To be fair, he’s still useful, but his defence is not of the quality of Mannering’s.

Along with this, and Johnson’s removal from the starting line-up, the Warriors may be taking a step backwards.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

It has often been debated as to whether a player attempting to charge down a kick is a good thing.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, perhaps, it was there for all to see during last night’s encounter between the Warriors and North Queensland in Townsville. On three occasions during the first half, Warrior’s players charged down kicks on the last tackle. On all of those occasions it resulted in North Queensland regaining possession and an extra set of six.

This, of course, put added pressure on a Warriors side, defensively, that is not used to the heat and humidity of tropical North Queensland. Maybe it contributed to their 30-10 loss to the Cowboys, maybe it didn’t.

Regardless though, the opposition having extra possession is not a good thing, it has to be said.

Sure, it shows high levels of commitment on their part to harass the kicker. And for this, they should be commended. The better option, though, (as smarter people than me have pointed out) is to pressure the kicker, but at the same time resist the urge to come into contact with the ball.

Hence, you regain possession.

And with any luck, due to the pressure put on the kicker, it may also result in the set of six starting in better field position.

It sure beats defending against repeat sets of six.
Ivan Cleary must be some coach.

Especially if the rumours doing the rounds in rugby league this week are correct.

Scuttlebutt would have it that Penrith Panthers head honcho, Phil Gould, has earmarked Cleary as the right man to lift the Sydney side out of the doldrums.

And in 2012, too.

It seems Cleary is a wanted man.

Problem with this, of course, is that Cleary is contracted to the New Zealand Warriors until October 31st 2012.

Now, Cleary is a fine coach, but even he may struggle to coach two teams at once.

So which is it going to be?

Cleary insists that he is going nowhere. That he is committed to seeing out his contract. This is a commendable attitude on his part.

Too often in today’s society, contracts are seen as something to break when it suits. A mere inconvenience, as it were.

Let’s assume the best and that Cleary is principled enough to honour his current contract. That still leaves the Warriors wading through a sea of uncertainty for 2012, not knowing in what direction the club would be headed.

What if Cleary, despite staying next season, has alredy decided that he will be at Penrith in 2013? Now, he’s more than likely going to keep that information to himself, knowing that he can use it to increase his bargaining power when it comes to his next contract.

Nothing quite like having a couple of clubs after your services to increase your price, is there? You can’t really blame him for that.

If he is going at the end of next season though, that leaves the incoming coach stuck with playing personnel that aren’t necessarily of his choosing.

And if he knows he is going to leave when his contract expires, why not go to his bosses at the Warriors and come to an amicable agreement to part ways.

That way Cleary gets the challenge of turning Penrith into a NRL force once again, and it allows for a new coach to be appointed at Mt Smart earlier than would normally have been possible.

This way, no one loses, either. Cleary, would forgo the last year of his monetary gain in Auckland (he would get paid by Penrith anyway) and Warriors management would be paying the incoming coach what Cleary would have got next year.

So, financially everything would be sweet.

And on the coaching front, there are viable options waiting in the wings. Both Tony Iro and Brian McClennan would jump at the chance to coach in the NRL.

Which means all would not be blue for the New Zealand Warriors.

Friday, June 17, 2011

If you’re good enough you’re old enough. At least that’s how the old adage goes.

With Michael Luck out for up to eight weeks with a partially dislocated patella, the Hawera born Elijah Taylor has a big job to do as his replacement.

To some it would have come as a shock when Coach Ivan Cleary named Taylor in Luck’s lock position for the Warriors encounter tomorrow night with the North Queensland Cowboys instead of a more experienced teammate such as Simon Mannering.

Luck manages week in week out to accumulate somewhere in the vicinity of fifty to sixty tackles an outing. Lately, he has even displayed some attacking chops, too.

The workaholic in Luck just doesn’t stop. A rare specimen he is. Much like the eveready bunny, he just keeps on going and going...and going. It was somewhat surprising, then, that the battery suffered damage against the West Tigers last Sunday.

So, can Taylor mimic his senior workhorse’s workload in the suffocating heat that Townsville is renowned for?

Doubtless, he will give it a mighty effort. Thirty-five tackles he has been averaging in his ten appearances thus far in 2011. Only twenty off of what Luck achieves.

Whether this allows his attacking game to flourish remains to be seen. Not that it really matters, though. Others such as Feleti Mateo can attend to any attacking opportunities that may come the Warriors way. Taylor can best contribute to that attack by increasing his defensive workload.

And surely that is all in the head. Within reason, if he believes he can achieve, he will. And make no mistake about it, with his side having suffered two consecutive defeats, a lot rests on his twenty-one year old shoulders.

Luckily though, he seems to have an old head presiding over those young shoulders.

It was there for all to see earlier this season against the Sydney Roosters. With Taylor charging his way to the opposition in-goal zone, he was partially tackled by two Roosters who then fell off him. Rising to his feet, Taylor simply took off and dotted down for the try. Others would have looked around for guidance from the referees to see if they had deemed the tackle complete.

Not Taylor though. Not only is he quick on his feet but also possesses quickness of mind which is rare for someone so young. Maybe, then, the Warriors have found themselves a future captain.

For now though, he can lead by elevating his performance to a loftier altitude and the rarefied air of fifty tackles. It’s a challenge for the young man, that's to be sure, but a backward step to that goal he need not take.

For lily-livered, Taylor is not.

After all, there is a reason Ivan Cleary penned his name into the position of lock. And it wasn’t to writhe his way out of a hard nights work.

Not that Taylor would want it any other way.

And this means we’re all about to see if Elijah Taylor is old enough.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

There it was for all to see; in the sixtieth minute a member of the crowd holding up a sign with the words “no baloney with Maloney”.

In the ultimate irony it was in fact an act of absolute baloney on the part of James Maloney that turned the match in favour of the West Tigers.

As we shall see shortly.

Having dominated the majority of the contest for the first sixty-one minutes, the New Zealand Warriors saw a 22-4 lead frittered away.

Oh the shame of it all...this Warriors crop could be one fabulous side.

They had played a great game thus far. Defence, as it generally is with this outfit, was miserly. Even when the Tigers did manage to bust their line, they scrambled superbly.

Patience, they found, was a virtue, as early in the match they bided their time while the Tigers had a brief period of superiority over the opening ten minutes, scoring the game’s initial try.

Panic, the home side didn’t. Slowly but surely, they worked their way into proceedings, going on to run riot over the ensuing fifty minutes with an attacking frenzy that Mt Smart has not seen the likes of too often over the last few years.

To those of you not used to seeing such intricate series of passing manoeuvres from a Warriors side along with superb support play, don’t worry, your eyes were not deceiving you. It really did occur. And often, too.

Leading the charge was in-form fullback, Kevin Locke. Small in stature he may be, a big heart for he is most certainly the key. Sheltering to the lee of his bigger team mates is not where he is content to earn his fee. Deceptively strong, busting the tackle, his back was there all too often for the Tigers to see.

A Touchdown for a try of his own, run thirty metres on two other occasions to ably support mates in their preparations for scoring opportunities, not to mention a couple of try saving tackles, and the Tigers just could not break free.

Quite amazing, isn’t it, what competition can do for ones motivation.

With Glen Fishiahi chomping at the bit to regain the position that Locke garnered through the “Fish’s” injury forced exile, Locke has the pressure of knowing that someone else is breathing down his neck, eagerly anticipating a recall at the incumbent’s expense.

Yet, Locke appears to be thriving on the competition, going from strength to strength.

The rest of the side, it seemed, were growing in confidence as well. Ahead 8-4 at the break, the passes were sticking and the gaps in the Tigers defence were coming thick and fast. Opportunities abounded, and back’s Manu Vatuvei and Shaun Johnson lined up with the unabated glee of a couple of sharks in a bloodbath at the prospect of a trifecta of tries between them. This they achieved, two of which went to Vatuvei.

And then it happened. That one moment in time that changed the course of match for ever. Maloney, having tackled one of the Tigers forwards, retaliated after the tackled one pushed him. It was harmless, Maloney need not have responded. The penalty led to a try to West Tigers captain, Benji Marshall, on the next set of six.

One innocuous little incident and momentum had swung. Soon the Tigers were the ones throwing the ball around, making breaks at will. Four tries in ten minutes, with the winning play coming in the 75th minute as Beau Ryan scored in the right corner to put the match beyond repair for his foe.

Twenty unanswered points and the Tigers had been gifted a 26-22 victory.

It should never have occurred. Yes, the Warriors lost Michael Luck mid way through the first half to a season ending ACL medial ligament tear to his knee. Yes, there was Maloney’s rare moment of brain fade.

But it wasn’t just Maloney. Sure, he may have started the cascading effect of a fall into the Tiger’s lair, but the rest of the side, in the end, were as much to blame for this result.

22-4 up and one suspects they subconsciously clocked off early, thinking they had the game won.

They hadn’t. There’s a very good reason coaches urge their charges to maintain their intensity for eighty minutes.

And that reason was there for all to see today at Mt Smart.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The NRL debut of twenty year old Shaun Johnson was more eagerly anticipated by some than the second coming.

An attacking genius it is said of him. Fleet of foot with speed to burn, he has yearned for his turn. Two years in Toyota Cup to learn his trade, would he make the grade?

Well, he gets a pass mark.

He didn’t do anything wrong on what was a bludger of a night. So don’t hold a grudge, after all he is a blank canvas waiting to caress a deluge of attacking vistas vividly across the NRL landscape. With the weather not on a high, in fact more to the nether, all Johnson could do was make the most of a difficult situation.

That attacking fun will come but in the meantime he had to content himself with sticking to the basics. This he did a fine job of.

His long kicking game didn’t win fame on the night but still it was more than adequate. His short kicking game was far from lame but it has the potential to tame.

When defensive duties came it did not tarnish his good name. Sure, he missed one tackle early on but in the main the young man was more than game.

So, suffice it to say, a desirable first-up effort from the superstar in the making.
Rome wasn’t built in a day...and neither it seems was the New Zealand Warriors attacking machine. In fact it’s fair to say that after their performance last night against the Sydney Roosters it’s still very much a work in progress.

Sure, the weather’s continuously snarly disposition made its presence felt with a menacing torrent of precipitation, offering very little assistance to anyone with notions of taking the attacking bull by the horn. That said, not once in their 13-6 loss did they look remotely like breaking Sydney City’s defensive line despite a plethora of possession.

Riveting attack it was not.

Having had the previous week off they looked fresh. With gusto the forwards hauled the ball up the middle. Starting props Russell Packer and Ben Mautalino were animated. They dared, certainly cared and were too constantly to display no wear and tear from their early ambitions. Packer was more akin to a rampaging bullock than a prop forward as he bullied his way along the park with multiple defenders hanging on for dear life.

The keen observer would have noticed an error free effort from the Warriors. Not so their foe. Sydney City simply invited the visitors to run away with the game. A compulsive urge, they seemed to have, to gift an eighty minute window of scoring opportunities to the Warriors.

If only those warriors had of been more in tune with their attacking feelings on the night. They had set up camp early on in the Roosters half and stayed there for much of first thirty minutes. Aptitude for the task at hand, though, was lacking. Their passing appeared laboured. Perhaps they were paying the weather more respect than it deserved. Lateral movement became the norm.

We should, of course, give credit to the Roosters for a mighty effort in keeping the Warriors scoreless. When forced to defend for seventy percent of the time, it takes a courageous effort to keep an opposition out of one’s own in-goal area. And that they did. They had waited patiently and good things came to them. That they went into the break 12-0 ahead was testament to their perseverance.

Even though the Warriors crossed for an early second half try to Simon Mannering, it was very much a case of deja vu as the first half repeated itself. Try as they might they couldn’t quite get across the white stripe. A frustrating night for them it was.
The pity of it all was that -outside of their attack- there was so much to like about their work.

Once again defence starred for them. In the previous eight matches only twice have they conceded points in the final twenty minutes. Last night was one of those occasions, and even then it was nothing more than a field goal that was conceded.

Their kicking game was good, and the kick/chase was even better.

Now, if they could just fix that attack up...
What a great Women’s final it was last night.

Two fine combatants in Li Na and defending champion Francesca Schivone paraded their talents before an adoring Parisian crowd.

There were tremendous rallies, great ground strokes and delightful touches of volleying excellence. We saw one player dominate for a set and a half (Na), then just when it looked as if she may knock Schivone out after going up 4-2 in the second set Li Na let her nerves invite themselves into her psyche.

Here she was on the verge of winning her first grand slam title, but before you knew it, she was spiralling head first into what looked likely to be a fatal meltdown.

However, it seems that Na is made of sterner stuff. Gathering herself, she gave her nerves the flick and went on to win the tiebreaker without losing a point. The match was won 6-4, 7-6 and she had become China’s first ever grand slam winner.

A great effort on her part. At the age of twenty-nine she had the ripeness to calm herself down after her mini-meltdown and forge her way back into the match. Younger players may not have been able to achieve this. There is a lot to be said for experience and the maturity that comes with age.

Even more impressive was her performance after the contest had ended. There were no histrionics, no tears...just a smile and a wave to the crowd, and then she sat quietly in her seat courtside contemplating what she had achieved. The lady has class. The same can be said for Schivone. Neither player went overboard with the emotions unlike others (both male and female) have over the years.

Both ladies can be justifiably proud of their performance- both during the match and in particular during the post match proceedings.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The New Zealand Warriors have suffered a setback in their quest to add to their tally of eight wins this season against the Sydney City Roosters in Sydney tonight.

With wet conditions prevailing, attacking football was out.

Disappointing for the Warriors that was, as they dominated possession over the opening quarter of the match.

A lead would have been handy given the added territory this had gained them.

Alas it was not to be as it was the Roosters who were the first to score, with Aiden Guerra diving over in the 36th minute.

Not long after it was the turn of Shaun Kenny-Dowell to gather a Anthony Minichello grubber and score in the right corner, giving the Roosters a 12-0 lead at the break.