Diary Of An Aotearoa Warriors Fan: Early Trends of the Struggle

Right on cue, after three (of 24) games, the mainstream media in Aotearoa are talking about New Zealand Warriors being in crisis. Not only does that feel ridiculous, it is completely ridiculous and showcases the level of coverage the Warriors receive in the mainstream media. The Warriors could have lost all three games by 50 points and they wouldn't be in crisis, because as you've read many times on the Niche Cache; the NRL season is a lengthy beast that lends itself to all sorts of ebs and flows.

Don't get me wrong, this has been a reasonably mediocre start to the season and in this Diary of an Aotearoa Warriors fan entry I'll be pointing to the biggest contributing factors to the recent losses - which are completely fix-able. To reinforce how ridiculous this overly dramatic narrative from the mainstream media is, we only need to look at last season to see how the season levels everything out.

This starts with the perspective that the Warriors are mid-table NRL team, which is how it feels right now. I've got a high ceiling on this Warriors team, assuming that improvements are made and they can settle on their ideal style of footy, but I'll keep it safe and steady in suggesting that the Warriors are a top-eight team. Last season the Warriors won their first five games and were 2nd on the ladder after round five, as one of two unbeaten teams.

The regular season finished with the Warriors in 8th with a record of 15-9, the same records as Penrith Panthers who finished 5th. Point being that taking any major judgements after the first five rounds, or even crazier, three rounds is kinda irresponsible and the NRL season has a habit of putting teams where they belong when the season is over.

Did youz see that Canterbury Bulldogs smoked Wests Tigers 22-8 over the weekend? Cronulla Sharks racked up a 42-16 win over North Queensland Cowboys after scoring six second half tries and we can roll through various other examples regarding to how competitive the NRL is. The Warriors will lose more games this season, games that don't make sense given results around these losses and in isolation there is no insight to be had.

As we've consistently seen over the past few years, you only need to be slightly off your game and you'll have points racked up against you. This was exactly the same last year for many teams and specifically the Warriors; show up with a slightly weakened team or not ready to go full hundies and you'll lose. Over the course of a season though, everything falls where it should.

Nothing that the Warriors have served up in the first three rounds suggests that we are in for a horrid year, or that the club is in crisis. Obviously nothing that we have seen suggests that the Warriors are among the NRL's elite either, which is the whole point.

The main issues I have noted from the first three rounds has been dummy half running, or lack of dummy half running. The Warriors are tied with Penrith Panthers for the fewest dummy half runs of all teams (15) and along with Parramatta Eels, these three teams are the only teams with fewer than 20 dummy half runs. Nine teams have more than 30 dummy half runs.

Just like offloads (Warriors are 1st in offloads), dummy half running doesn't directly have a relationship with winning. But like offloads, you need a good number to maintain balance and keep the defence honest. 15 dummy half runs is no where near enough to enable the Warriors to pose any attacking threat and this is perhaps the most important factor in the Warriors clunky attack.

Dummy half running ensures that 'marker' defenders have to hold their position and those defending around the ruck must first respect the dummy half, then think about getting out to the first-receiver. With no dummy half running, defences don't have to respect that threat and can instead put more pressure on those receiving the passes. Considering that the Warriors have a half in Adam Keighran, who is in his third NRL game, no dummy half running results in even more pressure put on a spine that is already in learning mode.

It was crazy to even suggest that the Warriors would be able to sustain a high level of play over the first 10 rounds, with a rookie half. That in itself should show you how silly over-reactions are in this scenario and we are a long way off knowing the best 17, let alone seeing the best footy from Keighran. To tie it back to dummy half running though, Keighran's development is made more difficult with the lack of dummy half running as defences can get a jump on pressuring Keighran.

Then ponder how that impacts Blake Green, who is clearly the dominant half. Green has had 188 touches so far this season, while Keighran has had 78 and that tells you all you need to know about the balance between the halves. Understandable given Keighran's still sussing NRL footy out, but opposition know this balance and can put Green under all sorts of pressure for different reasons to Keighran; spook Keighran because he's a weak link and rush Green because he's doing nearly everything.

All of which is made possible thanks to the lack of dummy half running. Issac Luke only played 40mins vs Sea Eagles and prior to that vs Tigers he played 57mins, with Jazz Tevaga playing dummy half when Luke is off. The win over Bulldogs had Nathaniel Roache playing 55mins with 3runs/37m which is the best dummy half running performance of the season thus far; Luke clearly isn't at his best and Tevaga isn't fast, he wiggles around the ruck.

On top of that, the Warriors outside backs have had just 5 dummy half runs this season (1 vs Bulldog, 2 vs Tigers and Sea Eagles). All of these dummy half runs from the outside backs have resulted in 10+ metres and clearly have value, yet no outside back has had more than a single dummy half run in a game this season. The two losses for the Warriors have come with a complete absence of any speed out of dummy half, whether from a hooker or the outside backs

This is pretty easy to fix and you could give the benefit of the doubt to coach Stephen Kearney in suggesting that this absence of dummy half running from the outside backs to start the season is a plan to play it safe and see how teams are operating. Considering the forced changes and tinkering with the forward pack, I generally think Kearney is sussing out his players and as I said earlier - we're a long way off the best 17.

This then means that adding more dummy half running can be easily done. Let alone the fact that Luke will settle into his work and the possibility of Luke/Roache working in tandem is likely to give the Warriors a ruthless dummy half threat. Tevaga probably shouldn't play too much dummy half moving forward and is a stop-gap at the moment, although the prospect of Luke, Roache and Tevaga in the same 17, with big boppers around them is funky.

Following on from the dummy half run stats, we have the 'line engaged' numbers where the Warriors are 14th. This generally means that the Warriors are doing very little to earn the right to spread the footy via shifts (passing) or offloads and the Warriors are instead moving the footy without getting defenders nibbling. That makes them very easy to defend, let alone with no dummy half threat as well.

Defensively, it may feel like the Warriors are terrible. They are 8th in missed tackles which is pretty solid, especially considering they are 4th in tackles made and you'd probably assume that if the Warriors are being forced to make the 4th-most tackles, they'll be ranked somewhere similar in missed tackles. The high number of tackles does mean that the Warriors can open up in the second half under that weight. The basic logic of this Warriors team being shit at tackling though, clearly doesn't apply.

My feeling is that it all comes back around to their attack, or how the Warriors control the game. After three rounds of footy, the Warriors have had very little control due to a completely lack of potency with the footy and this as seen them be at the mercy of how the Tigers and Sea Eagles want to play.

The Tigers gritted their teeth and hit grind mode, while Sea Eagles threw the footy around and put on a show. Two very different styles, for the same result for the Warriors and the common factor for the Warriors has been their inability to establish their game plan/style of footy and find their groove. Without that, you're doing whatever the other team wants and how the Warriors develop with the footy over the next seven games (to round 10) will be a key indicator of their potential later in the year.

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Peace and love 27.