WORRYING SIGNS IN WARRIORS’ NINES-MARE

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Yeah, it was only the Nines.

But it was also an opportunity the Warriors as a club should have been hell-bent on taking.

If the players didn’t need a big weekend in Perth to fortify their confidence, long-suffering Warriors fans could have at least done with a hearty exhibition to boost their wafer-thin morale.

A demonstration of competitive fire. A bit of attacking enterprise. A young gun to get excited about.

Something.

Instead, the Warriors were the joke team of the tournament in a concerning harbinger for the make-or-break year ahead.

Narrow favourites heading into Friday’s opener against Newcastle, the Warriors were flogged 34-0 – one point shy of the all-time Nines record, set in Penrith’s 35-0 win over Sydney Roosters in the previous game – and comprehensively schooled by a 37-year-old Kurt Gidley who last played in the NRL five years ago.

With a quarter-final berth a virtual impossibility, the Warriors left their best players on the sideline on Saturday and were duly beaten 14-8 by the no-name Roosters, the back-to-back NRL premiers whose front-liners are preparing for next weekend’s World Club Challenge fixture.

The Warriors scored less points than any team, while only Canberra – fielding just three members of last year’s grand final line-up and putting up considerably more resistance – conceded more during the pool stage.

To dismiss the fruitless trip as ‘only the Nines’ and say the Warriors have more important priorities is a cop out. Every club has bigger fish to fry in the coming weeks and months – particularly those that missed the Top 8 last season.

But all seven of the other teams who failed to reach the 2019 finals won their Day 1 matches. Of those, five qualified for the quarter-finals in Perth. The only clubs to finish below the Warriors last season – North Queensland, St George Illawarra and Gold Coast – all made the semi-finals, with the Cowboys and Dragons contesting a tremendous final and unearthing several electrifying talents.

How do you think the supporters of those clubs feel about the 2020 campaign now compared to Friday morning? At the bare minimum, they know their players had a red-hot dig.

The Warriors didn’t send their strongest possible team, but arguably only Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kodi Nikorima and maybe Tohu Harris would have added much to the squad. Six players considered Round 1 certainties went to Perth, along with five more who featured in first grade in 2019.

While the unheralded likes of Tex Hoy (Knights), Tanah Boyd (Titans), Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (Cowboys), Billy Walters (Tigers), Dean Ieremia (Storm), McKenzie Baker (who scored a hat-trick for the Roosters against the Warriors), and Team of the Tournament inclusions Luke Metcalf (Sea Eagles) and Cody Ramsey (Dragons) lit up the competition, the Warriors’ batch of youngsters – save for Paul Turner’s slick solo try and the busy efforts of Rocco Berry – were unable to grasp their chance to impress in front of a big audience.

It’s hard to blame the tyros, given the lack of leadership and direction from the senior players. It would also be easy to sink the boot in to overhyped squad captain Isaiah Papali’i, but at least he took the field on Day 2.

Cowboys utility-back Scott Drinkwater is striving for a starting halves spot for Round 1 and was named Player of the Tournament. Chanel Harris-Tavita, locked in his own battle for a No.6 jersey at Penrose, touched the ball eight times.

Given the playing group confronted the coach about having more of a say in the team’s playing style and focusing more on attack, the Warriors showed a baffling lack of imagination and desire with the ball in hand in a format custom-made for chancing your arm.

Defensively, it goes without saying, they were poor. The Warriors’ sluggish showings and basic errors weren’t exactly a glowing endorsement of the new conditioning regime under ex-Wallabies trainer Craig Twentyman.

The last time the Warriors phoned it in at the Nines in 2017 – contributing to the demise of Auckland’s reign as host of the competition – they went on to win just seven NRL games in Stephen Kearney’s debut season.

Start as you intend to continue.

It’s worth noting Kearney was the only head coach of a 2019 bottom-eight team not in Perth, while the Warriors’ languid performances were a slap in the face to assistants Stacey Jones and Todd Payten. At halftime of the Roosters loss, Jones directed the team to run the ball on the last; Papali’i responded by kicking the ball into the grandstand after making a rare Warriors break.

More pointedly, the apparent disinterest was an insult to every Warriors fan that made their way down to HBF Park. Whether it’s the Nines, a trial, the premiership proper or a grand final, pride in the jersey is expected. They didn’t have to win the trophy, or even a game – but evidence of having a decent crack is a non-negotiable.

There’s a disconnect between the Warriors and their fans at present. This weekend will have only pried that a little bit wider.

Even the usually busy Warriors Facebook page didn’t bother publishing a post after the NRLW team’s Day 1 win.

The Warriors have a couple of trials before their 2020 NRL premiership opener against the Knights in Newcastle in just four weeks. At least Old Man Gidley won’t be there – only Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga instead.

If their pedestrian Perth campaign was all part of master plan and it works, fair play to the Warriors.

But one last poser for the Nines-don’t-matter smartarses: What do the winners of four of the five Nines tournaments have in common? An NRL premiership in the past six seasons.

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