League year promised much, delivered little

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 13:01 06/01/2013
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Michael Luck of the Warriors reflects after their loss to the Raiders at Mt Smart Stadium.
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GONE: Brian McClennan is looking for a new job after being sacked by the Warriors.

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As you will hear in any song by The Smiths or Morrissey, things that end bleak and miserable usually start with promise, excitement and hope.

Last summer, before a Steeden had been passed or kicked around rugby league paddocks throughout New Zealand, those three words were very much being used in anticipation for the year ahead.

No more so at Mt Smart Stadium. Fresh off a NRL Grand Final appearance in 2011, last season's Warriors had a certain confident vibe to them heading into the 2012 season.

Most of the side was the same from the heroes of the previous year, and now they had Brian McClennan, former Kiwis coach and blue-collar hero of New Zealand league, at the helm.

Everything smelt rosy. Even maverick millionaire Owen Glenn got in on the act, buying into club in early March just in time for the season opener against the Sea Eagles at Eden Park.

New Zealand's home of rugby was packed with leaguies - to watch the Warriors go down 26-20. From there, the first-half of the season wasn't that bad.

There were good wins (a 44-22 round 7 thumping of the Rabbitohs), and bad losses (a 32-12 trashing by the Raiders in Canberra in round 6), but come round 13, the Warriors still sat in the top eight.

Glenn and co-owner Eric Watson even hosted a glitzy press conference at SkyCity casino, announcing their plans to make the Warriors the biggest sports club in Australasia, with a ton of incoming investment.

From there however, it all unravelled. Reasons, excuses, call them what you want, were everywhere.

Consistent injuries to top line players like Sam Rapira, Simon Mannering, Manu Vatuvei, Jacob Lillyman and Jerome Ropati. McClennan's growing struggles adapting to the NRL.

Lack of form by star halves pairing James Maloney, off to the Roosters at the end of the season, and Shaun Johnson.

Whatever it was the season spiralled out of control, following three tight, consecutive losses to the Broncos, Knights and Sea Eagles in rounds 19-21.

Repeated assurances from club chief executive Wayne Scurrah said that McClennan would remain until at least the end of the season.

Cue an ugly loss to the Panthers (18-16 at Mt Smart Stadium in round 24) with two games left, a likely rattling of the sabre from Glenn and two days later, Bluey got the flick.

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Assistant Tony Iro stepped in for the remainder of the season, but couldn't help the team as they careened to a club-worst eight straight losses.

In their search for a new coach, the Warriors targeted the big names, the Storm's Craig Bellamy, the Sharks' Shane Flanagan and the Tigers' Tim Sheens, with big money.

They didn't get the bites they wanted - and ended up with former Panthers and Raiders boss Matt Elliott, a man Glenn admitted he'd never heard of at the start of the season.

The club has built around Elliott in preparation for 2013, providing him with a line-up of lieutenants such as Kiwis legend Ruben Wiki, former Crusaders trainer Carl Jennings and new assistant Andrew McFadden.

The Warriors-less NRL finals weren't as entertaining as they should have been, though the Storm-Bulldogs final was a cracker, with the boys from Melbourne taking a 14-4 victory.

Earlier in the year, Queensland won its seventh straight State of Origin series 2-1 over New South Wales.

Heading into 2013, the NRL faces the issue of increasing the salary cap, with wantaway former leaguie Israel Folau choosing to play rugby next year, instead of signing with the Eels.

With the NRL signing a big new billion dollar broadcast deal this year, the debate on salaries will rage over the summer.

In the international game, the Kiwis went zero from two in their clashes against the Kangaroos.

In an absorbing April Anzac test, New Zealand went down 20-12, before losing another close tussle 18-10 in Townsville in October.

With the international eligibility row roaring on, the Kiwis were able to snare Auckland-born Bulldogs prop Sam Kasiano and Cowboys prospect Jason Taumalolo to play for them, though Cowboys big bopper James Tamou sided with Australia, and Queensland.

The New Zealand Rugby League lost one of its greatest servants when chief executive Jim Doyle decided to resign, but have signed up savvy operator Phil Holden, former Lion Foundation CEO, to take his place.

Meanwhile Iro, leaving the Warriors after missing out on the coach's job, joined the NZRL in a high performance role.

The build-up to next year's World Cup remains strong with Kiwis camps planned in Sydney over the summer, as well as three warm-up tests before the tournament kicks off next October.

Though he is yet to confirm it there's every chance Sonny Bill Williams will be wearing a black jumper in England. 

On the domestic scene, Mt Albert Lions claimed the Fox Memorial Shield in Auckland.

A good year for: Sam Kasiano. The Auckland born-and-bred prop established himself as one of the best in the game with the Doggies, reaching an NRL Grand Final with them. Chose the Kiwis over Origin footy too.

A bad year for: Brian McClennan. Once heralded as the great blue-collar hero of Kiwi league, Bluey's chances of ever coaching a top level team again are unlikely. Poor bastard.

Crystal ball gazing: The Warriors will finish seventh and dip out in the first week of the NRL playoffs - with the Bulldogs winning the premiership. Sonny Bill Williams will become league's most dominant player again, and be part of a Kiwis side who defend their World Cup title in England next November.

- Fairfax Media

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