Remember the Warriors of 2002 who made Rugby League attractive to young New Zealanders? Remember the thrills and spills of an attacking formation that made players in motion, a quick witted halfback taking it to the line, a goliath second rower busting the line and throwing audacious well thought out offloads, a hooker bursting from dummy half attracting two or three defenders before passing before the line to a man running straight through a gap and a hitman at lock who would pound opposition attackers mercilessly.
Those were the days. The glory days of the New Zealand Warriors. The glory days that led to a mass resurgence in the popularity of rugby league in the land of the long white cloud. They played controlled Polynesian football, it was exciting, it was daring, and most importantly of all it was damn successful.
So successful that it took the game from being bankrupt some 18 months before into the season's decider at Telstra Stadium. So successful it turned around the bankrupt sleeping giants into the Minor Premiers complete with a cheque of $100,000 Australian. So successful it ended a run of dominance unlikely to be seen in the next decade from the Canterbury Bulldogs. So successful it earnt their star halfback, Stacey Jones, the prestigious Golden Boot award.
So what did the club's football brains do this year? They went against the policy 'If it ain't broke, don't fit it' and made wholesale changes. Gone was the depth in attack. Gone was the angled runners. Gone were the decoys. Gone were the Stacey Jones to Jerry Seu Seu run around. Gone was the Stacey Jones banana kick. Gone was the instinctive fullback or centre trailing Ali Lauitiiti and Sione Faumuina for an offload to send them under the sticks.
In came a safety concious, ultra defensive Australian style of rugby league. A style of football that talented stars like Jones, Lauitiiti, Webb, Faumuina, Toopi, Meli and friends simply could not adjust to. It was like sending a Martian into down town New York. It was a foreign, unchartered frontier. Each loss was greeted with contempt from the adoring fans, how could something so good change so dramatically so quickly? Yet undaunted by the prospects of going from second favourite for their maiden NRL Title to being in a two horse race with the South Sydney Rabbitohs for the Wooden Spoon, the leaders of the rebellion Daniel Anderson and Tony Kemp kept banging their head against a brick wall and made no clear changes.
Midway through the season, after two embarrassing thrashings from fellow cellar dwellars Manly Sea-Eagles at home and away to competition favourites the Sydney City Roosters, Daniel Anderson was sent on his way. The official word was he had resigned, much like PJ Marsh had apparently walked away from the club. The question remains to be begged, why walk away from six figure contracts into the uncertainty of unemployment? Not rational is it, but the club would swear until they were blue in the face this was the case in both instances.
In came the new messiah, assistant coach Tony Kemp. He received the public thumbs up from Mick Watson and proceeded to make very few changes. Underperforming former stars such as Awen Guttenbeil and Jerry Seu Seu were largely left to start for the Warriors despite awful seasons. Young prospects like Cooper Vuna, Manu Vatuvei, Marvin Filipo, Simon Mannering, Kane Ferris, Sam Rapira, stars of the local Bartercard and Junior Competitions as well as successful members of the Junior Kiwis side were left to ponder their futures as they waited by the phone for the call that never came. Fans hoped that the attractive Australian clubs, or even their British counterparts did not pick up too quickly on the level of competence in the junior ranks which had previously cost the Warriors Sonny Bill Williams.
As for the tactics? They stayed the same. The tactics floundered on waiting for someone to do something out of the ordinary. The only time they looked to be dominating was when Iafeta Paleaaesina would muster every ounce of energy he had into a power packed hit up. Previous stars like Jones and Toopi looked all at sea having their reputations unceremoniously tattered by lack of ball and lack of attacking opportunities. Previously unheralded players such as Wairangi Koopu, Louis Anderson, Paleaaesina and Vinnie Anderson strove hard for the club, playing with pride and passion but ultimately, in a rudderless ship it was never going to be enough.
Remembering that Daniel Anderson walked the plank after two poor losses to the Roosters and Manly, Tony Kemp must be chewing the nails after his team had near on a half century smacked on them in a do or die contest against the hapless, and for most of the season hopeless Parramatta Eels. Unfortunately for Warriors fans Kemp's two year contract was officially ratified last week at the Beasely Avenue franchise so change seems unlikely. The change from the successful paranormal style play was an overnight failure, but the overnight failure looks set to stay. Seemingly the lack of attack is in vogue at the club. Most fans would love to see publically the key performance indicators the Warriors have used to measure Tony Kemp's development as a Head Coach, surely there must have been some in depth decision making rather than a "She'll be right" approach. After all, this club was once the pride of a nation.
Thank god for video tapes of the 2001-2003 seasons. The way Warriors footy should be played. Seemingly the only way we will see it played in the near future. Rest in Peace, Warriors success.