By Radio Sport Breakfast co-host Kent Johns
It’s been another NRL season, and another season of expectation down the gurgler for the Warriors.
I have friends who love the team so much they actually couldn’t bear to watch by the end. That’s how bad this season was — fans gave up. And some have now given up hope (let alone faith).
This club is so incredibly fortunate it has such a passionate, rusted-on fan base — but once the apathetic bug bites it is hard to find a cure.
It is apparent the club is now building for the future. Coach Stephen Kearney is slowly and quietly moving players on who he doesn’t rate, and next season’s squad will look much different, particularly the forward pack.
Gone will be Ryan Hoffman, Ben Matulino and Charlie Gubb. And I don’t expect contracts will be offered to Jacob Lillyman and Bodene Thompson.
Keiran Foran is off to the Bulldogs after an ill-fated season in the halves, which opens up an opportunity for young Ata Hingano to forge a partnership with marquee player Shaun Johnson.
Hingano impressed this season with only limited opportunities at standoff, and was probably the most impressive of the young brigade given a crack in first grade.
But patience from some fans has worn paper-thin to the point where it doesn’t matter what changes are made or even suggested, they will be met with scepticism and derision. They’ve heard it all before so why should they now be confident about the future?
Let’s not forget too, the Warriors Under 20s team was dreadful this season. They won only three matches and had a minus 496 points differential.
Even putting aside the fact the better players are already playing senior football, this illustrates a genuine lack of depth across the board for a club who only recently was winning titles at that level.
Perhaps of greater concern though is the possibility Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Simon Mannering could leave after next season.
The club’s two most consistent performers will be free to look elsewhere beyond 2018, and who would blame them if they thought they had a better chance of success away from Mt Smart?
I am assured coach Kearney will be given time to implement his rebuilding plan, but what if not much progress is seen next season?
You can only ask so much of a fan base starved of winning, and some are at breaking point, so the 2018 NRL season is shaping as the most important for the Warriors since they proudly entered the competition in 1995.
As for a Warriors player of the season, I see it as a two-horse race. And the candidates are the two guys the club can least afford to lose, captain Tuivasa-Sheck and Mannering.
The skipper played all but one game in 2017 and tried his guts out, and was easily the club’s most impressive back.
I’d give it to Mannering though, again (again!). He was the second highest tackler in the competition, averaging 45 tackles per game. He also had easily the most runs of any Warriors forward, and had 22 offloads for the season — no other Warrior had more than 15.
This would be his sixth player of the year award (no one else has three) and, I swear, the moment he leaves the club they’ll have to rename that trophy in his honour.
James Gavet had an excellent season but missed 11 games through injury, and whilst Shaun Johnson was good early on, he didn’t play enough games to truly threaten.
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There has been some good chat around the most desirable opponent for the All Whites in the World Cup play-off in November, when they will play the fifth-best team from South America — and with only two rounds of games left we are none the wiser.
Brazil has already qualified, and Bolivia and Venezuela can’t make it. Everyone else, including highly competitive nations such as Uruguay, Colombia and Paraguay, are still jostling for the other three automatic qualifying places.
Ecuador may present the toughest assignment because New Zealand would have to play the away leg at high altitude.
And whilst Argentina, who currently occupy fifth spot, present a potentially scary proposition, they aren’t playing particularly well.
It’ll all come out in the wash in October, but any opponent would be favoured against our boys.
I don’t think we have the right to expect the All Whites to win over two legs.
That being said, who wouldn’t want to see Lionel Messi in Wellington come the end of November?