Can the Warriors be fixed?

Not the Warriors from Golden State. They are on track, have a title, are on course for a few more and have 4 current All Stars. In fact, they are the poster child for turning around a moribund franchise.

I’m talking about the Warriors from New Zealand and on a separate but related note, after a two-month hiatus (getting a little twitchy because of withdrawal), I’m talking about Rugby League again. What a relief!

James Maloney - Photo by Jason Milich - CC-BY-ND-2.0

James Maloney – Photo by Jason MilichCC-BY-ND-2.0

I’ve pondered this many times and even wrote a post outlining the tortuous history of the Warriors, but have come to the conclusion that despite there being many contributing factors, there is one primary reason for the Warriors inconsistent history and future and unfortunately there isn’t an easy fix for this.

Erroneous Theories

Firstly, I should rule out what I don’t think is holding the Warriors back.

Race

Theory – People won’t come out and say this in the media because they will be pilloried for it but people allude to the fact that the Warriors will never win the competition or sustain success long term because the team is predominantly of Polynesian/Islander heritage. The hypothesis must be that the racial composition of the side isn’t leading to success. Apart from being a racist theory, I think it is just plain wrong.

Fact – For starters there is nothing to back this up, it is just a theory. Also, what does this picture tell you:

It tells me that race hasn’t affected the success of the All Blacks.

One Team Country

Theory – Because the Warriors are a one country team the pressure to win becomes too much and eventually the team falters.

Fact – This is bollocks. Brisbane could run the same argument and did in the years preceding the first premiership in 1992. I admit that pressure does affect different people differently and this could have certainly contributed to under-performance but not for so long with so many different players.

Salary Cap

Theory – New Zealand is a never-ending nursery of talent, however, the Warriors cannot maintain a grip on all of the talent coming out of New Zealand because of the salary cap.

Fact – Getting warmer but still not the only reason. I agree that they have made some questionable personnel decisions over the years, however, every team in the NRL is subject to catchment issues and maintaining a grip on their juniors. Sitting on top of such a big nursery is a plus not a minus.

Losing Culture

Theory – The Warriors have never won anything of note so until they learn to do so they will never win anything.

Fact – There is some merit to this but it isn’t the major contributing factor. Look at Cronulla and North Queensland. They have had chronic losing cultures for long periods of time but managed to overcome them to become recent premiers.

Distance

Theory – The tyranny of distance, constantly travelling to Australia to play their games means that they are always at a disadvantage both from a home town perspective but also the sheer kilometres they have to travel.

Fact – Melbourne and North Queensland have very similar issues and are not hindered. It is a contributing factor but not an insurmountable one.

Rugby Union

Theory – New Zealand is a Rugby Union country and not a Rugby League one.

Fact – This isn’t too far off. Player numbers in New Zealand are overwhelmingly in favour of Rugby Union but a sufficient catchment of players do play Rugby League.

My Theory

I have a soft spot for the Warriors which makes it hard to watch them. When they are hot they are very hot. Anyone who has watched them a lot realises that their main issue is inconsistency.

Sometimes the inconsistency is in a set of six. They can make a break and then cough the ball up with the line in sight.

Sometimes the inconsistency is in a game. They will race to an 18-0 lead and then by half time they will be down 20-18. They let teams back into the game.

Sometimes the inconsistency lasts a whole season. They can win a streak of games and seem unbeatable and suddenly they will reel off a series of crushing losses.

Sometimes an injury to a key player like Shaun Johnson can kick off a series of losses. Sometimes it can be nothing that anyone can put their finger on.

I was watching the Warriors during a particular game where they were up by a few points with a few minutes to go and they made a crucial turnover near their line followed by an unfathomable defensive lapse and it occurred to me that under fatigue we revert to that which we are trained to do. Whether you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier theory or not (if you practice a skill for at least 10,000 hours you can become an expert), which is really just an extension of the nature vs nurture argument, it is an irrefutable fact that individuals that practice a skill repetitively become better at it. It suddenly occurred to me that what we are seeing with the Warriors is the product of the New Zealand Rugby League system vs the Queensland system vs the NSW system.

It all becomes pretty simple when you look at it that way. Queensland and NSW have more Rugby League players than New Zealand by a long way. There are more Rugby League competitions and teams (professional, amateur and junior teams) and more Rugby League jobs. Consequently, the support, training systems and competition experienced by NSW/QLD juniors is far superior to that of the Kiwis.

Take a practical example. A junior in Sydney of note will enter a very high level of competition at a very young age. He or she will train at a higher level for a longer period of time. Once that junior gets to A-Grade they have within them a honed skill set that sets them up to repetitiously perform under fatigue at the most pressure filled moments. Young Kiwis are not getting this training and competition to same degree which is why some of the Kiwis that are moving to Australia at a young age are reaping the benefits of the Australian system. I think this is one of the major reasons for the resurgence of the New Zealand Kiwis. I’m not saying that the New Zealand junior system can’t produce skilled and disciplined players, battle hardened by consistent competition but I am saying the Australian system has a better chance of doing so.

Conversely, junior Rugby Union players are getting this kind of training and competition which is why the All Blacks are so successful.

Conclusion

There is no easy answer for this but the most reliable way for the Warriors to sustain long term success will be to invest heavily in the junior pathways in New Zealand. If more New Zealand kids play Rugby League at a younger age rather than Rugby Union then the Warriors will eventually have a nursery that isn’t just talented but honed and trained into an unstoppable force. It wouldn’t hurt to have a second professional Rugby League team in New Zealand either. That would give more kids a pathway to actually earn money from Rugby League.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes.

Stay Tuned

Next exciting episode will be on Wednesday, 22 February 2017 titled ‘Was it just me or did the atmosphere at the Superbowl seem flat?’.

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