It’s really tough to not let yourself get sucked into this Warriors team right now. They’re a side which wasn’t expected to do much at all this season by pundits or fans, with an awkward combination of very raw kids; over-the-hill, injury-prone vets clogging salary space and head cases in their line up. They had just changed captains in the off season, and there were whispers about the coach and the front office staff – John Hart in particular.
So to find ourselves well inside the eight in mid-July is surprising to say the least. Even better, they’ve done it with most of their salary cap on the sideline. The team which won against Parramatta two weeks back had an average age of 23, and around 50 NRL caps apiece under their belt. Apart from Brisbane’s injury-ravaged start, there won’t have been many greener sides fielded this year. They were without captain Simon Mannering, Steve Price, Brent Tate, Joel Moon, Lance Hohaia, Jacob Lillyman, Kevin Locke, Sam Rapira and Wade McKinnon, who they’d parted company with earlier in the season. They’ve gotta be $2.5m, easy.
They got Mannering back for the weekend’s match away to Penrith, and turned out the most heroic defensive game I’ve ever seen. Shayne Hayne’s preening, patronising, astoundingly incompetent performance was exactly the kind of spanner which would have seen a slender 12-6 half-time lead become a 12-40 full-time thrashing in pretty much any previous Warriors team. We’ve never handled adversity particularly well round here. But despite what no less an authority than Bob Fulton called “the worst refereeing performance in the last 20 years”, those young dudes just put their heads down and tackled like animals for most of the second half. It put this year’s Origin to shame for tenacity, and created some of the most infuriating, enthralling sport you’ll in this or any other year.
It was a game that will become part of the side’s lore, that will live in the memory of fans forever. But it should also be a salutary lesson in where this club’s strength lies at the moment, and how it should spend its money. This winning streak is not being created by the big dollar Australian imports (though the attitude and work ethic of Michael Luck was written all over that win). It’s young, hard, unflashy home-grown kids who are doing it. They are deserving of their spaces, they’re playing together and for each other, they have incredible chemistry, and it is precisely the latter which I think is most valuable, and makes the rumours swirling around the likes of Steve Matai all the more worrying.Matai is a great footballer, no doubt, but when you have a core of quality utility backs like Hohaia, Ropati (who is in the form of his life) and Locke – with more bubbling up around the edges – to complement Vatuvei, why would you want to bring in a guy with a dodgy agent (one of the infamous Orr bros.) and attitude into the mix? To my mind, the lessons of the Oklahoma City Thunder should be looked at hard by this Warriors team.
They both have a marquee star who is a freakish physical specimen and on his day close to the best player in the game (Durant/Vatuvei), talent no-one saw coming in key positions (Locke, Maloney & Brown vs Westbrook, Ibaka & Green), and the chance to start over with a clean slate. For the Thunder it was moving from Seattle with no expectations and a incredibly smart GM/coach. For the Warriors it’s all that cap space – Price, McKinnon and Tate all off the books in one year, with more likely to follow. They’ve signed Inu, Mateo and Steve Rapira, which look like reasonable decisions, but with the way the rest of the team’s playing, they should be spending this off season extending the contracts of all these local guys who are playing their hearts out for minimum wage.
Because this could be a dynasty like the one building in OKC. These guys seem to love playing together – that much is manifest in all they do on the field. Like Oklahoma, who hang out in a pack off court and watch the rookies in Summer League rather than partying in South Beach, this Warriors side seems tightknit – a colleague told me that Ropati, Locke and others spend their free time training with talismanic former Warrior Ruben Wiki. Which is a pleasant change from the Monty Betham era’s getting smashed and smashing dudes at Pony Club, right?
It just feels good right now. Like we’ve got some bad apples out of the clubhouse, and the side is here to play league. Rather than rushing to fill up that cap space with whoever’s available, maybe we sit tight and believe in what our side’s leaving on the field every week at the moment. Because the way they’re playing, this could be the best team we’ve put together since 2001-2002. That side ended up falling apart prematurely, but here, with these kids, we have a shot at redemption. Let’s not blow it up just yet.