That wasn’t in the script, Adam!
As the Stephen Kearney era is consigned to the dustbin of history, and we prepare with anticipation for the Nathan Brown era, it may be time to reflect on another lacklustre coaching tenure and assess what – if anything – we can learn from yet another difficult few years in an increasingly erratic and dysfunctional club.
Firstly, the positives, Stephen Kearney leaves the Warriors having coached 79 matches, the third most games coached in the club’s history after Daniel Anderson and Ivan Cleary, both of whom also took the club to a grand final. Of these 79 games, he achieved 33 wins, also the third most wins by any Warriors coach apart from the aforementioned duo.
Paraparaumu-born Kearney’s win percentage of 42 per cent makes him the most successful Kiwi coach of the Warriors (none of the five previous New Zealand coaches of the Warriors reached a 40 per cent win rate). This is, however, a lower win rate than any of the five Australian coaches that the Warriors have employed, including his two predecessors, Andrew McFadden and Matthew Elliott.
He is the first and only NZ Warriors coach to bring the team to a finals series. The only other two are, you guessed it, Anderson and Cleary, who did it a whopping seven times between them out of nine full seasons coached. Kearney’s win rate is also significantly higher than his 24 per cent as head coach of a terrible Parramatta side prior to joining the Warriors.
Another positive with Kearney was his attitude. He seldom complained about referees, held himself accountable at – and fronted up to – every press conference and held an unwavering trust in his process. He showed strength and resolve when the team was in isolation in Australia and when unceremoniously (and somewhat tactlessly) fired over Zoom, he was all class in standing down. No sniping or parting shots. Took it on the chin.
On the recruitment front, Tohu Harris was probably Kearney’s best recruit. He has consistently been the Warriors’ leading forward in the last couple of years and may go on to captain the side in the future. The idea of bringing the mana, attitude and mental toughness of Harris from the Melbourne Storm to the Warriors in the hope it would rub off on the youngsters was commendable even if the results have been mixed.
Blake Green was also one of Kearney’s better signings. At least for a time. Although his form has lapsed and he’s become a whipping boy for fans due to his inability to control games and a sub par short kicking game, in 2017 the Warriors started the season with five straight wins, their best ever start to a season, including away wins over the Sydney Roosters, Canberra Raiders and the South Sydney Rabbitohs. At this time Blake Green was instrumental in providing an excellent foil for Shaun Johnson and was being discussed in Australia as a potential starting halfback for NSW at Origin level. How times have changed.
Eliesa Katoa has been a shining light in a dismal season stuck in the Central Coast. The 20-year-old Tongan-born second-rower has shown in his few matches that he has the talent and physical presence to become one of the Warriors’ best and a player good enough to base a team around in future years. He is an absolute beast and is being talked about as one of the best rookies in the competition.
Under Kearney he signed on until 2024 despite interest from the Melbourne Storm and Wests Tigers. It may prove to be Kearney’s best signing and one of the best signings of the modern Warriors era.
Under Kearney’s watch, Ken Maumalo became one of the best wingers in the league. His use of Maumalo as a battering ram in the early tackles in the style of Manu Vatuvei was a real success.
It’s worth also noting captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s continued importance and consistency and his remarkable achievement in winning the Dally M medal in 2017 as the league’s best player. He is the third highest paid player in the league, though, and whether he stays with the club and for how long is anyone’s guess.
Okay, here we go, Kearney’s recruitment has been average at best. His combination of recruiting journeymen at the expense of developing younger talent has grated with many fans and has seen some regrettable departures.
This is no better illustrated than in Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, who played seven games for the Warriors in 2017 and could not get a single game in 2018. He was picked up cheap by the Canberra Raiders the next year and went on to score 11 tries, play in the grand final and represent New Zealand.
The halves have been a difficult position for the Warriors since Stacey Jones left. A number of young halves were overlooked under Kearney and young halves Ata Hingano and Mason Lino were snapped up by other sides while Chanel Tevita-Harris and Adam Keighran continue to languish on the bench for two seasons now when they could be provided with important match experience.
Kearney’s loyalty was often seen as a weakness by fans as players like Solomone Kata, Adam Blair, Kieran Foran and Blake Green among others were continually chosen despite poor performances. This loyalty to players and to a process he dogmatically referred to but never elaborated on was not often extended to the younger halves mentioned above, who were often dropped after one or two average performances, crippling confidence and forgoing opportunities for blooding young talent.
Due to bad luck, bad management or a combination of both, Kearney’s Warriors have seen one of the most significant exoduses of legendary Warriors in their short history, including four of the six most capped Warriors ever. Under his watch we have seen exits by Simon Mannering, Shaun Johnson, Ben Matulino, Manu Vatuvei and Jacob Lillyman, who staggeringly combine for over 1000 games for the club (the current starting 13 combine for just over half of that).
As well as this, experienced marquee signings Ryan Hoffman, Issac Luke and Kieran Foran also bade farewell under Kearney, meaning four former captains left in this period.
The issue is that they were never adequately replaced. The likes of Gerard Beale, Peta Hiku, Adam Blair and Blake Green were never going to plug the gaping chasms left by the departures of the lifeblood of past seasons and it’s unfair to blame these players for the failings of the past few seasons.
If any blame is to be laid, it’s at the management and coaching staff, who should have done everything in their power to keep as many of these players at the club if they had nobody adequate lined up to replace them, which was often the case. They can also be blamed for the large sums of money paid out to these players but little accountability when the performances didn’t match the pay.
The difficulty in luring quality players to move to Auckland has long been an excuse as to why so many recruits have been either Kiwis or Australian journeymen happy to get a starting spot but that excuse is wearing thin. The Canberra Raiders have three superstars in Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead and George Williams that they brought over from the UK Super League and you couldn’t get a less glamorous destination than Canberra.
Speaking of unglamorous, Stephen Kearney’s win record as head coach when combined with his Parramatta tenure of 35.5 per cent is one of the lowest ever considering how many games he has coached. He has the fourth lowest win rate for coaches with over 100 games in the history of the league and for those having coached over 120 games he has the outright worst record since the NSWRL started in 1908.
To be fair, it is worth offsetting this with the fact that he is the only coach to ever win the Rugby League World Cup for the Kiwis, two Four Nations titles as well as some of the other achievements outlined above. And that the Parramatta team he inherited from Ricky Stuart was a basket case.
The Warriors finished the 2019 season losing three out of their last four games by an average of 28 points sliding to finish 13th out 16 teams. After such a disappointing campaign most fans were expecting some big signings to improve the squad for this current season. What happened was the offloading of four players including Issac Luke, Sam Lisone and Ligi Sao and the introduction of one recruit, hooker Wade Egan who had not had his contracted renewed by Penrith and was offered a lifeline at the Warriors. It should come as no surprise to see the Warriors again battling to avoid the wooden spoon this season. The only surprise is that they are winning more games than they were expected to while exiled on the Central Coast.
If there is one key flashpoint in Kearney’s reign as Warriors coach, it would be the ugly departure of gifted playmaker Shaun Johnson. If there is one player who polarises Warriors fans, it is Johnson. One camp sees him as talented entertainer, a fan favourite who provided much of the attacking impetus for the club despite being behind a struggling pack; an entertainer and a gamebreaker, who provided an x-factor to a team of toilers, a rare and irreplaceable home-grown talent. The other camp sees him as lazy, entitled, overpaid and inconsistent; a talent who was not able to live up to his potential. Either way you see it, the fact that he left and the way it played out was nothing short of ugly.
In late 2018, it was announced that Shaun Johnson was free to look to test his value in the open market with a year still left on his contract and in words that haven’t aged well, CEO Cameron George said: “We want to win the competition and we’ll be doing everything recruitment-wise to get the best people in the club to do so.”
This was a thinly veiled way of saying Johnson was not a part of future plans. They may have been sincere in this or it may have been a bluff to try to rev up Johnson after some inconsistent performances in a team full of inconsistent performers. This was all played out in the media and Johnson posted that he was told he wouldn’t be offered a contract. When Cronulla came knocking and offered Johnson a contract, though, the Warriors refused to release him and insisted he see out his remaining 12 months at a club that had just asked him to seek out another club and told him they wouldn’t offer a new contract. Talk about mixed messages.
The club relented in releasing Johnson but not before some snarky parting shots with Cameron George announcing: “On the basis of what Shaun told us, we are not going to compromise our culture on and off the field with people who do not wish to represent our club, members and fans in the way we expect”.
Let’s not forget the Warriors played Johnson often through injury under eight different captains (though never himself being given that honour) and six different coaches with different styles who cast him in different roles with a revolving cast of half partners behind an under-performing pack and then told him to look for a new club, and then when he found one, they didn’t release him, and when he dug his heels in they bagged him out publicly. The sequence was eerily similar to what happened to Blake Green in the last few weeks.
After a slow start at Cronulla, Johnson is currently a dominant force and leads the NRL in try assists and line engagements. He is a roughie to win the Dally M for player of the year.
The Warriors may have saved some money by axing Johnson but the club also paid $2.4 million for 31-year-old Adam Blair the year before and may still being paying him next year whether he plays or not depending on what Blair chooses to do.
After Johnson left, Cameron George stated: “We are going to find the right person to fulfil the roles that we require to have the best chance to win the competition and that takes good planning, good management, good considerations and there are many options. The phones have been running hot I can tell you that.”
The Warriors were briefly linked to Parramatta stars Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown but both fell flat, Johnson was never adequately replaced and it is doubtful the phone is still running hot.
It’s true that Johnson wasn’t consistent and his conduct in leaving may have been questionable, but his best was brilliant. He was incredibly exciting with his wicked step and acceleration. His solo try against Brisbane in 2011 and his famous try assist to Lewis Brown against the Storm the same year have gone down in Warriors folklore. He made people tune in to watch and got bums on seats because of he was an entertainer. And that is what the Warriors lacked under Kearney.
The Warriors’ reputation in the NRL is as entertainers. They are at their best playing ad-lib football, an unstructured game based on offloads and pace. The Warriors under Kearney were anything but. Kearney focused on ball retention, defence, discipline and mistake-free footy. He may have learnt this assisting Craig Bellamy at the Melbourne Storm, who have been a champion team by adopting a similar approach but with the Warriors it just did not work.
When the Warriors have been successful, the players have been given free rein to express themselves and have balanced toughness and structure on defence with an unpredictable, entertaining and undefendable attacking game. Who can forget when Sione Faumuina threw the no-look ball over his head to a teammate who scored under the posts in 2003? This year the Warriors’ completion rate has been exceptional and against St George Illawarra, they were one error and five minutes away from a perfect, error-free game, which no team has ever done. Despite that unprecedented completion rate they scored only three tries in 80 minutes.
The next chapter
All in all, Kearney’s tenure has not been dissimilar to that of Johnson’s. Both were brought in, arguably not given the support they required to excel and were unceremoniously dumped when the results didn’t materialise with no strategy for a replacement. Kearney could be seen as another victim of a dysfunctional franchise, which once had a reputation for revitalising careers but is now more adept at ending them.
Daniel Anderson and Ivan Cleary are the only two coaches who have managed to get another head coaching job in the NRL after leaving the club. For the rest of the coaches, taking the job at the Warriors effectively ended their careers. The club has become a coach killer.
Nathan Brown will ominously become the Warriors’ coach number 13 and with new owners who seem intent on shaking up a club that is now a by-word for underachievement, fans surely cannot continue to cling to the tired mantra of “next year will be our year”.
New Zealand sports teams can be lumped into two groups: champion teams (All Blacks, Silver Ferns) or giant killers that perennially punch above their un-populous weight (Black Caps, Wellington Phoenix, our Olympians), which makes the Warriors a confusing outlier. The clubs catch phrase of “keep the faith” is fast becoming less a promise of things to come than a plea to continue to accept yet another year of disappointment and underachievement.