Warriors and Waratahs: A tale of two under-performing teams

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Rene Ranger of the Blues puts a big hit on Bernard Foley of the NSW Waratahs. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

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I’ve often wondered why the Warriors or the Waratahs haven’t won a title. I see a lot of similarlities between them.

At first glance you could be forgiven for wondering what the link between them was.

After all, they play in different competitions, in different codes and appear to be at opposite ends of the social spectrum.

The Warriors draw most of their support from the blue collar families of South Auckland, while Waratahs fans traditionally hail from the well-to-do areas of Sydney.

But if you delve a little deeper, the reasons why these teams haven’t won a title, when they both should have done so, are remarkably similar.

Of more concern, the mistakes each organisation made in the past that kept success firmly at bay, are still being made today.

Some of the similarities between the teams are uncanny. For those of you who are superstitious, both teams start with the letter W and contain 8 letters in their name.

If you’re more interested in hard facts, the Waratahs have made two finals, in 2005 and 2008. The Warriors have also made two finals, in 2002 and 2011. Both entered the 2012 and 2013 seasons with new coaches. Both teams lost their last 8 games last year.

Off the field there are plenty of similarities too. Both are ‘flagship’ teams for their respective codes.

The Waratahs are the media and public face of rugby union in New South Wales, and the same role is fulfilled in New Zealand for rugby league by the Warriors.

They each carry the hopes and fortunes of their codes, for there is no doubt that when both teams are winning each code enjoys a spike in television ratings and media coverage, as everyone jumps on the bandwagon.

They both have a passionate core of supporters who have stood in the shadow of the other code for decades. They’re both backed by significant financial resources, marketing campaigns, and decent levels of media exposure.

Historically, they’ve also had players of high quality, including some of the best players to have ever graced a football field. Youth development is not an issue, as both clubs have extensive and well-resourced academy and talent identification programmes.

Pound for pound they’re as good as any other side on paper. But why do they continually fail to win a title?

In my humble view, what’s missing is a winning culture, or put another way, the mindset of a champion team. That culture is just not in their DNA.

Culture starts at the top, with the CEO, and more importantly, the coach. The coach has to command the dressing room.

In some teams, like the All Blacks, the Storm and Broncos, a winning culture seems to be ingrained at the molecular level, because these teams regularly succeed regardless of who is playing for, or coaching them.

These teams also possess a number of other intangibles, like ‘chemistry’, ‘aura’, ‘history’ and ‘mana’ which separate them further from the rest. But it would be a waste of time to try emulate them because these types of teams are freaks of nature.

You can’t emulate their success, because what they have is un-explainable. It’s in the fabric of the jersey and in the hopes of the people who support them.

For inspiration, the Warriors and Waratahs need to look at teams who have won titles unexpectedly, and emulate their culture. The best recent examples from each code can be found in the Reds of 2011, the Chiefs of 2013, and the West Tigers of 2005.

Success is not in the DNA of any of these three clubs, yet each achieved the remarkable feat of winning a title, against all odds. And let’s face it, any title won by the Warriors or the Waratahs is going to be against the odds.

Despite the propaganda they each promulgate, neither of them is going to become a mega-achieving all-conquering sports dynasty any time soon. It’s far too late for that.

If I could isolate one factor that stands out to me in the case of the Reds, the Chiefs and the Wests Tigers, it was the undying, unfettered, and uncompromising loyalty of the players to their coach, and their faith in him, his abilities and game plan.

There was a synergy of philosophies between the coach and the team. It’s a synergy which explains why Quade Cooper can loyally extol the virtues of Ewen McKenzie on the one hand, and yet on the other, accuse his national coach on television of being toxic.

Each of the three coaches – Sheens, Rennie and McKenzie, were relative newcomers to the job.

Sheens took over the Tigers in 2003, and won the championship two years later. Rennie won it in his first year, and McKenzie in his second.

All three men have strong personalities, were outsiders, and had respected playing and coaching records. While Sheens left the Tigers in 2012 amid open disharmony, back in 2005 he was the saviour of the club and the mastermind of the unexpected premiership title. Rennie and McKenzie also commanded the dressing room.

You could tell they were one with the players, that there was a strong bond between coach and team. In reflecting on the 2012 season, Rennie said in an interview on leadership that “You have to earn the right to wear the jersey.”

That is an important point which I will come back to shortly. He also emphasised, and taught to his players, the importance and role of Maori culture and its relationship with rugby in the Chiefs region – another ‘intangible’.

In a recent interview Queensland Rugby Chairman Rod McCall said of McKenzie:

“When Ewen joined us in 2009 the Reds and Queensland rugby were at a very low point. Over the past four years, Ewen has not only been responsible for turning around the on-field performances and attitude of the Queensland Reds, but he has also played an integral role in bringing success back into our organisation and to our wider code in Queensland.”

It’s clear from this praise that McKenzie instilled a winning culture in the team where none existed before. It was also McKenzie who took the Waratahs to both their grand final appearances to date.

Unfortunately, for new Warriors coach Matthew Elliot, it seems he’d lost the Warrior’s dressing room before he even set foot in New Zealand, if the comments of backrower Elijah Taylor following his appointment last year were anything to go by. Taylor said, in full glare of the media, that former assistant coach Tony Iro had been the player’s choice.

Indeed, according to the New Zealand Herald, Warriors management wanted Iro to remain with the club so he could “help Elliott get the players on board.” Other media reports said Elliott was walking into a player revolt, with some fuming over the decision not to appoint Iro to the top job.

There is something seriously wrong with your team culture if you are going to criticise the appointment of your new coach in public before he’s even set up a tackle bag.

The judgment of Warriors management also needs to be questioned when they knew such an appointment was going to be so divisive, and therefore counter-productive in building the right team culture. In those circumstances, team culture goes out the window – it doesn’t exist.

I can’t see the Warriors winning anything under Elliott, not because he’s a bad coach, but because the decision to appoint him was a bad one. For a team like the Warriors to win a title, they must have that undying, unfettered and uncompromising loyalty and faith in their coach. The signs do not augur well for the coming two seasons.

The only hope for Elliott is to purge the team, as Mark Hammett did with the Hurricanes in 2011, and start from scratch, but I suspect Elliott does not have the luxury of time that Hammett appears to have been given.

As for the Waratahs, what concerns me is the decision to take on Folau. Has he ‘earned the right to wear the jersey?’ I’m not knocking him, and I admire his courage and athleticism. He is a fine footballer, and good luck to him. But how could his time in the NRL and AFL possibly be construed as giving him the right to wear the sky blue jersey?

Has he ever indicated publicly a desire to do so, prior to finding himself unemployed at the beginning of the year? What looks like a publicity coup one minute, calls into question the culture of the organisation the next.

You just can’t have players cruising in off the back of an unsuccessful AFL contract and being handed the jersey on a plate like that. It cheapens it. It’s the antithesis of what Dave Rennie was talking about. Sonny Bill Williams played four years of union before he earned the right to wear the Chiefs jersey.

When you look at the most successful years for the Warriors (2002 and 2011), the players, and the New Zealand public for that matter, strongly identified with the coaches. When Daniel Anderson took the Warriors to the 2002 Grand Final he achieved messiah-like status and was rewarded with the Kiwis job.

Ivan Cleary’s 2011 team managed to switch the attention of the New Zealand public from the Rugby World Cup to his team of noble battlers as they made the 2011 Grand Final in sensational fashion.

There was an element too of sweet revenge in Cleary’s finals campaign, as inexplicably, the Warriors were terminating his contract at the end of the year, just when the culture was appearing to come right.

There is a smugness about the Warriors and the Waratahs that I just don’t detect in teams like the Chiefs or Wests Tigers. They’re like an only child, the sole manifestations of their code in a market that’s never going to get smaller, spoilt by a media too timid to throw the kitchen sink and call a spade a spade.

They believe in their own press too much. Both organisations have bungled important management and coaching decisions with alarming regularity. Too often important decisions are made with an eye on publicity, rather than for proper football reasons. Time after time, they’ve picked the wrong person to coach the team, and at the wrong time.

Time after time, good coaches have been dumped, just when they appear to be creating those vital building blocks of a winning culture.

Culture is about management making the right decisions, and an unbreakable unity of purpose between the team and coach. This is the culture the Reds, Chiefs and Wests Tigers had when they won their titles.

It has eluded the Warriors and Waratahs in the past save for brief periods under Daniel Anderson, Ivan Cleary and Ewen McKenzie. And this winning culture will continue to elude them into the foreseeable future.

Today the Warriors got hammered again, while the Waratahs were saved from embarrassment by a fortuitous last second penalty dead in front.

I am not implying that Folau or Elliott are responsible for the woes of their respective teams. But each of their appointments provides an interesting insight into the cultural health of their respective employers. And from where I’m standing, the prognosis for yet another year is ‘more of the same’.

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