Reasons behind the Warriors’ surprise rise to the top of the NRL ladder

A powerful mix of maturity, skill, accountability and focus in Auckland have helped turn tipping competitions on their heads

There are more nuances in rugby league than those outside looking in might give it credit for. Playmakers throw soft, short balls and spiralling long ones. Large men run fine lines at “soft”, “inside” shoulders. Defenders pile in like elite-level bouncers, like secret service guys man-handling a dangerous drunk away from the President. And coaches sit in their box and rage and scheme in a language almost cricket-esque in its clubbie complexity.

Yet often the game-play can be broken down to its simplest, brassiest tack: big man run fast and straight.

And repeat.

Step forward your competition co-leaders, the surprising New Zealand Warriors, who on Saturday night at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium coupled a staunch defensive effort with an offloading game that set free a series of diamond-hard charges into the ragged, back-peddling meat of the Cowboys’ D-line.

In one set in the middle of the second half, the Warriors went 70 metres by simply scooping up the ball at dummy-half and charging hard. Solomone Kata is purpose-built for this action. Isaac Luke has done it for 236 NRL games.

Buoyed by a bumper home crowd – who’d spent the previous few hours watching the also-surprising Wests Tigers knock over the premiers, and drinking beer – the Warriors won 22-12. The noise in the joint was thick, finals-esque. You could see the Warriors lift on the back of it. And an old adage was resurrected: the Warriors would win the premiership if the grand final were played in Auckland.

Shaun Johnson is at the height of his game for the Warriors.
 Shaun Johnson is at the top of his game. 

There’s always been adages about the Warriors. There’s been group-think, accepted truths, furphies, stereotypes. There are many predicting their fall as just a matter of time. For the moment, they are the destructor of tipping comps. The bester of Titans, Rabbitohs, Roosters, Raiders and now Cows. The Warriors are the hottest little league team west of a Tahitian time zone. And they are five-and-oh-how-did-that-happen?

How did it happen? Sounds simple – but it’s the players, stupid. Coach Stephen Kearney has instituted a game plan utilising the talents of his players. Shaun Johnson is running, stepping and firing balls wide. Blake Green is driving the team “shape”, doing simple “boring” things well. Adam Blair has been bopping about annoying people since 2006; on Saturday he made 47 tackles. Tohu Harris is a Craig Bellamy creation. Peta Hiku has been at more clubs than Shane Warne.

Experience is key. The Warriors have a fine storm of games played and maturity reached. Blair has played 270 NRL games. Luke has played 236 games. Shaun Johnson is now 27, a good age for a footy player. He’s still got all the zip but he’s now in his eighth season in the NRL. Johnson knows what he can do and when he can do it.

At training they talk of “accountability”. There are honesty sessions. If blokes don’t aim up, they admit it. And if they don’t, they’re told. Green, Blair and Harris have brought calmness to a squad that could lean to the fractious.

Example: The Warriors led 18-0 after 36 minutes through tries to impressive wingers David Fusiitu’a and Ken Maumolo. In previous years, such a lead may have meant party time. But after each try, the Warriors huddled, breathed in (literally) and continued to do what got them there. They ran hard, tackled hard and, mostly, hung onto the bloody ball.

The Warriors go into a huddle after a try against the Cowboys
 The Warriors go into a trademark huddle after a try against the Cowboys. 

It’s not that simple, of course. The Warriors completed at 80 per cent. A pass mark, perhaps. But their “shape” looked good. Their big bodies ran convincing angles. Post-contact, they offloaded 14 times. It’s a telling number. An offload means the next guy is running in “broken” play, against a defensive line going backwards, that’s not set. And into something like that “Bully” Luke (who notched 64 “fantasy points”, whatever they are) will prosper.

They defended like Spartans, missing just 25 tackles of 376 attempted.

So the Warriors took the points, and took the points. They landed penalty goals in the 53rd and 75th minutes. Previous years, 20 metres out in front, the Warriors, again, might’ve entertained us all with a try or a ridiculous stuff-up. There was rarely anything in between. Repeat set? What? In 2018 they take the points. And they breathe.

Yes, the breathing. After tries, the Warriors gather in a group and “reset” by filling their lungs and becalming themselves. It looks almost spiritual. Always among the most talented of footy sides, it seems they’re grasping for inner peace. It was All Blacks captain Kieran Read’s idea. Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is all over it.

“Scoring tries, you know, we tend to get a bit excited as a group,” Tuivasa-Sheck said. “And in previous years … we’ve been ahead then lost in the last 10 minutes.

“The breathing is just about coming together to reset, re-focus and get ready to go again. Focus on the next task.”

Next task? Brisbane in Auckland. Be no surprise if there’s a surfeit of side-steps.

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