Warriors' future 'disastrous' without Cleary

Last updated 12:00 17/03/2014
Ivan Cleary
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Two games into the National Rugby League 2014 season and like most fans I'm already wondering what to anticipate from the Warriors.

A team seldom matched by its ability to destroy expectations, I have to wonder what legacy our current team will leave for squad members to come.

It's 20 years since the club's inception, and after only 160 minutes of underwhelming football, I believe club and fans alike will continue to rue an old adage - the one that got away.

In the Warriors' case, it's more like a multitude. For the last decade the club has seemed intent on self-implosion, either by expelling classy players for a myriad of reasons, letting promising youth slip through its grasp, or simply failing to secure the services of a successful coach respected and loved by his players.

I love the Warriors. Despite some of their performances being cringeworthy, or their being able to seriously infuriate you with their lack of fitness or enthusiasm two games into a season, I have and always will watch them.

But the worst thing the club ever did was four years ago when they failed to provide Ivan Cleary with security and a contract he deserved.

Cleary once played for the Warriors. He was on the field for their first grand final appearance back in 2002 against the Roosters. Once retired, he was assistant coach of the Warriors by 2005, taking over the reins fully in 2006.

So began the era of Cleary, a rather glorious one at that.

The Warriors didn't win a grand final or the minor premiership under him, but they did make the playoffs four times.

In his debut year as coach, the Warriors were deducted four competition points for a salary cap breach, finishing 10th with 12 wins and losses apiece. With the deducted four points, they would have made the playoffs to take Cleary's success rate to five out of six seasons.

However, after a finals appearance in 2007, 2008 will be remembered for the legendary win from eighth place against the first-place Storm, the first team to ever achieve the feat.

While the Warriors would then lose out to Manly in the preliminary final that year and follow the season with a woeful 2009, finishing 14th, Cleary and the team delivered the goods once again in 2010, finishing 5th.

Despite such consistency and success - two words seldom associated with the Warriors - the club decided Cleary's services would be required no longer.

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They failed to provide him with a new contract and a deservedly tidy salary, and instead informed the man he wouldn't need to complete the final year of his three-year contract.

This meant that 2011 became Cleary's last season in charge of the Warriors.

Every Warriors' fan knows what happened that year. We made the grand final for the second time, meaning Cleary had played a hand in both the Warriors' appearances, and despite losing, fans and players were left to rue what our club had decided to continue without.

Cleary left for the Penrith Panthers, finishing with a rather exceptional win-loss ratio by Warriors' standards - 68 wins, 66 losses and three draws, pulling him just under the 50 per cent win rate.

I don't have anything against Matthew Elliot, nor the current team members, but the effects of Cleary leaving have been catastrophic.

Not only did we lose arguably the greatest coach the Warriors have ever secured, but since that moment, a myriad of things have changed among our playing personnel, and future stars of our game have wandered overseas.

The fitness levels of players from 2012 onwards have been horrendous, and the enthusiasm almost nonexistent until push comes to shove.

The Warriors lost to Penrith in 2012 and spent the after-match commiseration period smiling and laughing, shaking hands happily with the Panthers like their opposition was full of old friends. And they are now. The Warriors have leaked exceptional talent to the Panthers and their coach Cleary, either because Cleary and Gus Gould know of the talent being missed or taken for granted here, or the players themselves simply want to play under Cleary.

We have lost the ever-sturdy utility and Kiwis representative Lewis Brown, had rumours of Shaun Johnson being poached by the Panthers, two players Cleary always supported in Isaac John and Jeremy Latimore, and the biggest dagger to Warriors' fans - Elijah Taylor.

Taylor was bound to one day be captain of the Warriors if he stayed. Since Cleary first handed him a spot in the team at the Warriors, he impressed with his tenacity and enthusiasm, and always showed his dissatisfaction with losing, even voicing his displeasure with other players who seemed happy to be on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

Losing Taylor was a product of losing Cleary, and in turn the Warriors lost what they probably didn't understand was one of their strongest future players, a natural born leader who wore his heart on his sleeve for the club.

They've also lost James Maloney to big money from the Roosters, yet had enough to splash out on overseas talent at fullback despite spending years persisting with Kevin Locke while he jogged back kick returns and failed to realise his potential.

During that time, 2012 Warriors' under-20s player of the year and fullback/utility Pita Hiku was allowed to stroll from the club to Manly, where he is now an absolute star despite competing for a congested number of positions with NRL proven talent.

Even losing a player like Aaron Heremaia hurt. Some fans might disagree, but Heremaia was the embodiment of what we all love in a Warriors player: he was tough and fast, fit, daring and yes, prone to the odd cringeworthy lapse in judgment. But that made him more endearing, like every player we've ever idolised for their ability to change a game within a second and balance that with the idiotic.

Whether it be a giant forward like Epalahame Lauaki, with fleet feet so unbefitting even Hermes was jealous, or Ian Henderson with his feral beard and no-nonsense play, the Warriors have lost a myriad of talented players for mostly reasons unknown. They seem to enjoy breaking what isn't broken.

After 20 years, they've cashed in the journeymen for stars, players who might be capable of amazing feats but now seem happy to cash a cheque and go missing on the field, or spend their off-season at the all you can eat buffet.

The Warriors have invested in Feleti Mateo and persisted, but sadly he looks bigger and slower than ever.

Nathan Friend is commendable at hooker for his services but he too is slow, and the majority of the forwards look only interested in tackling immobile targets.

Set plays see the ball go to ground, players are too unfit to play the ball fast, the kick and chase is more underwhelming than ever and the defensive line is lazy.

The Warriors have let their fair share of leaders and potential stars leave the club, and they've lost a coach who would never have stood for the woeful attitude and fitness levels we are seeing.

To make things worse, rumours of Ben Matulino wanting to move clubs have swirled since Cleary left. If Matulino does leave, who will be left with any gas in the tank or desire to take the ball? It will just be another case in a long list of the many who've gotten away. 

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