Written by Joshua Dean
The New Zealand Warriors have been playing in the NRL for 25 years now with many seasons the Auckland based club being inconsistent and suffering much heartbreak.
However, there have been two seasons in the club’s history where they have been very close to taking home an NRL premiership. In both the 2002 and 2011 seasons they were only one win away from breaking their premiership drought after making the grand final.
The 2002 team finished in 1st place and won the Minor Premiership after winning 17 regular-season games, whilst the 2011 side took a completely different route, finishing sixth in the regular season, winning 14 games.
Both these sides have a special place in Warriors fans hearts as they each came so close to winning the clubs first NRL premiership.
With their fast-paced, razzle-dazzle style of play, the 2002 New Zealand Warriors dominated the competition. They scored 688 points, the third-most points in the competition with 13 out of the 29 first grade players scoring over six tries, including Clinton Toopi scoring 18.
Superstar Ali Lauitiiti won the Dally M Second Rower of the Year and coach Daniel Anderson won Dally M Coach of the Year. This side was just too big and too strong for opposition sides, in particular in the forwards. The forward pack were one of the toughest in the league and definitely the most skilful.
The Little General, Stacey Jones, was a major factor in the team’s success, guiding them around the field. Finishing in first place, they beat the eighth-placed Raiders 36-20 in the Qualifying Final, then grinded out a massive win against the Sharks in the Preliminary Final winning 16-10 to make the Grand Final. The rest is history, Stacey Jones scored one of the greatest Grand Final tries ever, but Brad Fittler and the Roosters showed up on the night and the Warriors lost 30-8.
The 2011 New Zealand Warriors were a very up and down roller coaster side. They lost their first three games, then won their next seven out of eight, then lost four in a row in the first 16 rounds of the season.
This Warriors side had a perfect blend of youth and experience, with young wonder kids like Shaun Johnson and Kevin Locke creating vital clutch moments, as well as having hard-nosed forwards like Simon Mannering, Jacob Lillyman and Michael Luck. The halves combination of James Maloney and Shaun Johnson marched the team around the field, creating many fabulous tries. Then there was The Beast, Manu Vatuvei, who was a dominant try-scoring machine that scared opposition wingers.
After a good run home to finish the season, they finished in sixth position. In the first round of the finals against the Broncos, the team lost 40-10 with Manu Vatuvei having an absolute shocker, dropping a handful of high balls. Due to the McIntyre system, they got a second chance and beat the Tigers with a last gasp try to win 22-20.
The Preliminary Final was against the Storm and the side produced one of the greatest defensive efforts ever for a Warrior’s outfit, keeping the Storm from scoring any points in the second half and winning 20-12. Like the 2002 Warriors, the 2011 side just didn’t show up on Grand Final day, losing to a clinical Manly side, 24-10.
Both these sides are different, however, have some similarities, like failing to get it done on the biggest stage, the Grand Final. The biggest takeaway that the current Warriors management should be noticing is that both coaches are Australian and they let their players play their natural game. There may have been some structure, however, both sides relied on fast-paced, throw the ball around attack and hard, tough defence.
For the 2020 Warriors side, you see none of these things. Another thing that is noticeable is that both sides had a balance of youth and experience. Whether it be Kevin Campion or Michael Luck, both sides had hard-nosed experienced forwards that would do anything for the club to win games.
The only player that featured in both the 2002 and the 2011 sides, ‘The Huntly Hurricane’, Lance Hohaia is also the type of player the current squad now lack. He knew his role and played it perfectly, playing the number 14 role one game, the starting fullback or hooker the next, Hohaia could play five different positions and a versatile player who can play in the halves, hooker and elsewhere well is very underrated and important.
Making conclusions from these two sides, it is clear that the current Warriors should start recruiting high-quality youth (or keeping their youth), as well as tough forwards, to have a perfect blend of youth and experience. If Kearney’s ‘process’ doesn’t work again this season, the Warriors should look at an Australian coach who can discipline the players but also let them play their natural game.
However, remember that there were nine years between Grand Final sides for the Warriors, it is now nine years from 2011, is 2020 the next Grand Final year for the Warriors? It’s very doubtful, but who knows in the world of Rugby League!