Limp season has Warriors braced for backlash

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 09:11 19/08/2012
Shaun Johnson
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ
FEELING BLUE: The Warriors are ready to face the music after a lacklustre season.

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Up in Whangaparaoa last week, there was a particular house, where a particular song was blasting from a certain long-time grunge fan's stereo.

Not too loud that neighbours could hear, but loud enough for Warriors coach Brian McClennan, the man who put a certain Pearl Jam CD on, to hear straight and clearly.

He could've tuned in / But he tuned out / A bad time, nothing could save him / Alone in a corridor, waiting, locked out. The lyrics of Given to Fly are an apt description for McClennan's current situation at Mt Smart Stadium.

Off the back of five consecutive defeats, including two absolute towellings over the last fortnight, the knives are out for the former Kiwis coach.

Rumours, some true, some not, abound in the media. That McClennan is on thin ice. That former Eels coach Stephen Kearney is being courted for a future role at the club. That co-owners Eric Watson and Owen Glenn are rattling the cage.

As a club, the Warriors have been here before. They've had mis-firing seasons pock-marked with embarrassing losses, promotions to kids who haven't been ready, season-long injuries to key players and inconsistent form from the regulars. McClennan hasn't. The 50-year-old has enjoyed an incredible career that has seen him succeed at every stop along the way. With the Mt Albert Lions. With the Kiwis. With the Leeds Rhinos in Super League.

The golden weather has come to a jarring stop for McClennan. He admits as much - this is the toughest time he has endured as a coach.

"Without a doubt," McClennan told Sunday News.

"I've never been in this situation before. The teams I've been with, we've always been in finals. I've never been here before, so it is foreign territory. But, you learn a lot about yourself in these situations and you certainly learn a lot more from your defeats. I believe in what I believe in and I know what works, and I'll keep working a way at it."

At times this season, McClennan has cut an awfully lonely figure in the Warriors coaching box on both sides of the Tasman.

They've had their chances - and blown them. Those crucial tight losses to the Tigers and Sharks before each bye. The dropped chance against the Broncos at Suncorp.

Sometimes when things spiral out of control for a coach, it is because they've lost the dressing room. When senior players no longer trust the instincts of their boss, and steer the squad away from his instructions.

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That is definitely not the case at the Warriors. Bluey's Boys are "100 per cent" behind him.

"I really believe in his structures and what's he's set out," second-rower Elijah Taylor said. "The rules, his templates of football. His mindset.

"I think it's great for the way Polynesians and Maori play the game. A bit of ad lib, but hard work football." So how has it gone so belly-up for McClennan? Injuries have been one thing. The Warriors have missed the leadership and presence of Micheal Luck, Jerome Ropati, and Sam Rapira this year - all long-term members of the Mt Smart sick bay.

Injuries, though, are part of the league business. You cop it on the chin. And McClennan hasn't exactly been a super coach this season.

Defensive strategies have unravelled, suggesting the use of former Kiwi Ruben Wiki to add steel to the team has failed, while some of his interchange decisions have bombed out completely.

Add to that the decision to send talented, but laconic, utility Krisnan Inu to the Bulldogs. The former Kiwis representative has been simply on fire since, and could well be part of a Premiership-winning club.

Yet for a bloke whose head is reportedly on the chopping block, McClennan has remained professional. There have been times he has fronted media with two-day stubble, dark eyes and a cagey disposition - but he has remained accountable.

Repeatedly, McClennan has said the buck stops with him. That he is driving the bus. That he is responsible for how it all ends up. For those reasons, the heat fairly is on him.

But the Warriors coach remains committed to the task at hand - the Panthers today. The mood at Warriors trainings this week has matched that. Trainings have been tight and sharp, and players smiling. After all, why feel sorry for yourself? Why wallow? As any sportsman knows, one victory can turn things around.

"The challenge is more about ourselves as opposed to our opposition," McClennan said. "We've got to finish a game feeling like we played somewhere near our best. That's the unfufilment we've had lately - we haven't done that. [And] the answers are within us."

If they are found, McClennan may well be listening to a tune.

If not, expect that stereo in Whangaparaoa to be up way louder.

- Sunday News

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