League: What might have been

New Zealand Warriors players take a rest as they train on the sand dunes at Bethells Beach in Auckland in November. Photo by Getty.
New Zealand Warriors players take a rest as they train on the sand dunes at Bethells Beach in Auckland in November. Photo by Getty.

Considerable optimism swirled around New Zealand rugby league at the start of 2012 but, as Michael Brown, of APNZ, writes, that was quickly extinguished in a disappointing year for the sport.

That was then
If ever there was a year when the Warriors would break through and win a maiden NRL title, 2012 was seen as the one.

Not only did they go on a great run at the end of the 2011 that concluded with a second grand final appearance but they also had the majority of their key players returning along with a new coach who had guided the Kiwis to a historic Tri Nations win in 2005.

It didn't go to plan. In fact, it didn't come close as the Warriors lurched to 14th of the 16 teams with only eight wins out of 24 games.

It brought back painful memories of their 2009 campaign when they went into the season full of optimism after coming one game short of playing in the 2008 grand final but, when installed as one of the pre-season favourites, backed it up with a 14th-placed finish.

Most of the blame was laid at the feet of new coach Brian McClennan, who was sacked two weeks before the end of the season. McClennan made mistakes - the players weren't fit enough and his emphasis on attack came at the cost of defence which was the third-most porous in the NRL - but he wasn't helped by a horrendous injury list, the fact he was shorn of a handful of experienced squad players from the previous year and an ambitious new owner who set extremely lofty goals and became impatient.

Cracks emerged in the side and it was believed McClennan lost sections of the dressing room who didn't support his departure from a game plan that had worked so well under former coach Ivan Cleary.

Assistant Tony Iro took over for the final two weeks but he couldn't turn things around and Iro was ultimately overlooked for the head coach's role for 2013. The club sought a supercoach, and they chased Storm boss Craig Bellamy, before former Penrith coach Matt Elliott got the job.

Iro was asked to remain as Elliott's assistant coach but chose instead to join the New Zealand Rugby League in a high-performance role to help the Kiwis' defence of their world title.

The Kiwis had a quiet year, playing only two tests against Australia. They were beaten 20-12 in the Anzac test at Eden Park and then followed that up with an 18-10 defeat in the heat of Townsville in October.

Both performances were encouraging but continued New Zealand's struggles against Australia in one-off matches - the last time they tipped over the Kangaroos in a one-off match was the 1998 Anzac test.

This is now
The Warriors can barely do worse than they did this season.

Elliott will have new recruits Thomas Leuluai, Dane Nielsen, Todd Lowrie, Harry Siejka and Dominique Peyroux, but he's lost influential five-eighth James Maloney (Roosters), hard-working veteran Micheal Luck (retired) and second-rower Lewis Brown (Penrith).

Expectations will be a lot more realistic, which often works in the Warriors' favour, and, if key players remain injury-free, they have the potential to at least make the top eight. The basis of a good side is there - it's a matter of how they gel under their third coach in three seasons and what hand they are dealt with injuries.

The Kiwis have a decent chance of retaining the World Cup. They traditionally perform considerably better in tournaments than one-off matches - they won the 2005 Tri Nations, 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four Nations - and will have a squad capable of mixing it with a powerful Australian line-up.

The joker in their pack (not literally) could be Sonny Bill Williams, who will return to league for a season as he honours a handshake agreement. Kearney is not banking on SBW being there given Williams' boxing aspirations and the fact few people know what the 27-year-old is doing until it's officially announced but he will be quietly working on Williams in the background.

Story of the Year
After a period of relative stability, the Warriors quickly lost patience with McClennan and sacked him even before he had seen out one season as coach. It illustrated just how ambitious new ownership duo Eric Watson and Owen Glenn are.

Quote of the Year
[This job] was like the final frontier. I had achieved what I wanted to everywhere else but obviously it didn't work out. The planets didn't align.- Brian McClennan auditions for Star Trek after being deposed as Warriors coach.

Player of the Year
Ben Matulino was a shining light for the Warriors in an otherwise gloomy campaign. The 23-year-old's mix of brutal front-on defence and high work-rate established him as one of the game's best props.