The pressure is on New Zealand Warriors playmaker Shaun Johnson and coach Stephen Kearney.
If the Warriors start the 2018 season as they played in 2017, changes will be made to move on coach or star player.
The Warriors will face the Rabbitohs away, Titans at home, Canberra away, Roosters away and finally Cowboys at home in the first five rounds. With three away games against quality teams, the Warriors need to find their groove early.
The signing of Stephen Kearney for 2017 on a three-year deal was meant to be the missing piece of the puzzle to unlock the enigma that is the New Zealand Warriors. Kearney is a very credentialed coach. He has spent time as an assistant coach under the best Craig Bellamy in Melbourne and Wayne Bennett in Brisbane. He coached the New Zealand national team to victory in the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. He had tried an failed as a head coach of Parramatta at a time of transition and drama.
An inaugural member of the then Auckland Warriors in 1995, Kearney arrived back at the club where had played 79 of his 264 first grade games with the makings of a good roster and hopes for immediate success. Falling short of expectations in 2017 and now into his second year, Kearney has moved a few players on and brought in players of his choice.
It is with those players he hopes to build a team that has discipline and structure. Star player Shaun Johnson struggled under Kearney’s structured game plan last year. There were a few magic moments you expect from Johnson but over all Johnson looked unsure of himself.
He kicked when he should have run. He ran when he should have kicked. Some kicks were wayward or badly executed. His combination with the departed Kieran Foran was clunky, neither really taking control of the team who at times were embarrassingly outclassed by opposing teams.
With the arrival of Blake Green from Manly, it will be hoped that he can guide the team and free up Johnson to play by his natural instincts. Looking at the Warriors team, they have a roster with great potential led by former Rooster Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Their spine is rounded out by former Rabbitohs favourite Issac Luke at hooker. Luke also failed fire under Kearney last year spending much time on the bench and will need to be at his best in 2018.
With the addition of already mentioned Green, along with Melbourne back-rower Tohu Harris, Brisbane prop Adam Blair, utility backs Gerald Beale and Peta Hiku to the existing roster, Kearney is filling the team with players he believes can execute his game plan to turn the Warriors into a Premiership threat.
Game plans, new additions and a quality spine are great and all of these things can make a team competitive. Having Shaun Johnson fit and back to his best makes them a genuine Premiership threat. He has what many teams don’t the X factor an ability to win games with individual attacking brilliance. Johnson can do things on the field that he can only do it’s the unpredictability that makes him a threat but also a liability without some sort of structure around him.
If Green can control the team inside Kearney’s game plan and the forwards, led by Blair, can lay the ground work and be disciplined, Johnson will be able to work his magic. Unfortunately, if the Warriors results early in 2018 mirror that of the 13th place finish in 2017, heads will roll. The club management will need decide on the future direction the Warriors.
Coach after coach has failed with the exception of Daniel Andersen and Ivan Cleary. With both no longer an option and the lack candidates to replace, do they stick with Kearney? Or do they clean out the playing roster and rebuild? As stated, Johnson is now 27 and with 143 games needs to have a good year. If he has another mediocre year both he and the Warriors will need to evaluate his future.
The Warriors have Mason Lino waiting for his opportunity. Lino is a very different player to Johnson and is a more traditional halfback. For New Zealand Rugby League, the Warriors fans and NRL neutrals, I hope Johnson returns to his spectacular best as he is a delight to watch.
Would Shaun Johnson prosper at an Australian based club? There would be no shortage of clubs wanting to sign him. I have doubts the Warriors will make an impact on this year’s competition!
How do you see the Warriors, led by Johnson and Kearney, going this year?