It was over before we knew it – literally in this case, as few had predicted that both The Panthers and The Tigers would succumb to their lower-ranked opponents. So this Warriors season, which a few days ago seemed so potent, is now over.
While it’s always hollow when your team drops out, this one didn’t hurt so bad. I was trying to figure out why. Because it doesn’t really make sense – why would you feel less saddened by the exit of a team which had come home so strongly, and which spells the end of the Warriors career of some guys you had loved – among them Brent Tate, Steve Price and Wade McKinnon.
The answer’s contained in the fact that the latter two weren’t at Skilled Park to witness our final roll of the dice. McKinnon was down the coast preparing to turn out for his Wests Tigers, while Price never took the field in the pointless final year of his contract, one which hamstrung a club which he claimed to love so dearly with a figurehead on big money who was a distraction at best for their young core.
Tate was a great servant of the club, and I never felt like he was anything less than 100% committed to it. But the trio were our marquee players during the period 2008-2010, likely eating well over a million dollars worth of salary each year. Of the combined 228 games they might have played for the club during that period, they turned out for a combined 111. That’s a shade under half the games we contracted them to play. If you want to know the source of the team’s struggles during that period, that’s a pretty good place to start.But apart from the disastrous showing in 2009, the team didn’t fold, despite the absence of so much of our salary cap. Ivan Cleary still has a job, and the team has made only a few judicious moves for next season, rather than sweeping changes. That’s because into those dozens of open roster spots left vacant by the injured and the indolent strode a group of young, raw and hungry local kids.
They got baptisms of fire, debuting on foreign soil against canny teams who were coached to exploit the weakness they represented. We got toweled in too many games, and we looked on the verge of falling apart more than once. But they learned the trade, gradually gained in confidence and started to look more like they belonged in that environment. And in making one of their number captain the club’s hierachy produced a masterstroke which will pay dividends into the future.
Mannering turned 24 a couple of weeks ago. He’s everything you’d want from a rugby league captain – tough, diplomatic, a leader through actions rather than words. His predecessor reportedly demanded the first and fourth hitups of a set because those gave you the best metre gains for the stat sheet. It’s the last thing you can imagine Mannering caring about, and that attitude and respect for the game is spreading like a virus through the side.
So next year when we front up to training camp in December there will be a group of players who’ve achieved far beyond what most thought possible this season. The core of the team is very, very young, and uncommonly experienced for such tender years. Plug Mateo and Inu into that combination and you have the makings of a team which could play together for a long time, and will worry many across the ditch – whether they realise it yet or not. Which is why this off-season feels shot full of more hope than we’ve had in years.