A good night for the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys in Townsville, outlasting the Vodafone Warriors...
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The Warriors entered the season with most astute pundits prediciting a finish at the base of the NRL ladder. And, considering their horror previous year, it was hard to argue. The Auckland based club claimed just seven wins in 2009 and had only added the signatures of troubled Sharks half Brett Seymour and unknown Melbourne playmaker James Maloney to an largely uninspiring roster on paper.
Hardly the prelude to a successful campaign and after two months of footy it looked as if the Warriors were in for another disappointing season. The side notched only three wins in the first eight rounds of 2010 and suffered heavy defeats at the hands of the Panthers (12-40) and a salary cap scandal motivated Storm side (6-40) in succession.
A growing injury toll threatened to fruther derail a shaky start - the comfirmation of the loss of Steve Price to a career ending foot complaint was undoubtably the biggest blow - but the Warriors managed to tough out two wins in a row. They then went down to heavyweights Wests Tigers (Rd 12) and St George Illwarra (Rd 13) but there were glimpses of a team beginning to turn the corner.
And golly didn't the Warriors rise in the latter half of the season. A dominant five game winning sequence saw New Zealand rise from 11th position into fifth by the completion of Round 19, with the side combining ruthless defence and new found confidence in attack to great effect.
The Warriors continued to ride the wave of a mid-year surge to an eventual fifth place on the ladder - the club's third best finish to a regular season in their history.
Having narrowly missed out on a home semi, they then faced a daunting road trip across the Tasman to take on the Gold Coast Titans at Skilled Park. A gallant performance wasn't enough to stop the Titans from triumphing 28-16 on their home turf and, in a cruel yet familiar twist of the McIntyre System, that loss proved curtains for the Warriors in 2010.
Wins to the Tigers and Raiders against highler placed opposition saw New Zealand eliminated in week one as the second lowest ranked loser. However, despite the abrupt exit, in light of humble beginnings, the season as a whole can be viewed as one of success.
The Warriors overcame the many hurdles thrown their way - not least a horror first half of the season and potentially crippling injury toll - to finish as the fifth best team in competition. A newfound ability to win on the road was also a feature, with the Warriors winning 7 from 12 on Australian soil. Remarkably though, their home crowd average of 13,313 was a drop from 2009 despite a far better season on the field.
The previously untried halves combination of imports Maloney and Seymour was an unexpected positive of 2010 - they both gave the side great direction and provided a steadying hand in attack. But in terms of the best player of the year, it's hard to look past (figuratively and literally) the hurculean Manu Vatuvei. The Beast's fearsome charges netted 20 tries, including two hattricks. In the forwards, the workaholic contribution of Simon Mannering and Micheal Luck should not be overlooked. In particular, Mannering, whose leadership came to the fore after assuming the captaincy.
New Zealand's rookie props, Russell Packer and Ben Matulino, stepped up to fill the void left by Steve Price. Both played their best seasons to date but in different styles, Packer provided the endurance up front, while Matulino was the X-factor off the bench.
In a great sign for the future of the club, the Under 20s side became the first Warriors side to claim a premiership trophy with a 42-28 win over the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the grand final. Statistics wise, the youngsters were the best defensive side and the third from the top in attack. As a result of their success, the Warriors dominated the post-season Junior Kiwis side, with Glen Fisiiahi, Bill Tupou, Siuatonga Likiliki, Carlos Tuimavave, Shaun Johnson, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Nafe Seluini, Sam Lousi and Mark Ioane all donning the Kiwi jersey. From those listed, Tupou tasted NRL action in 2010. However, centre Likiliki appears the top prospect but will need to iron out some issues in defence before progressing the the top grade.
The Warriors seem set for an ever bigger and better season in 2011. The club has recruited astutely, adding the spark of Parramatta duo Feleti Mateo and Krisnan Inu to the squad - both were far from their best in the year just gone but will relish playing in New Zealand. Furthermore, the club is due for some luck in the injury department and I doubt we'll see as many Warriors on the sideline next season. Although the side does look imposing, the Warriors should have learned that matches aren't won or lost on paper. And, after a good finish to 2010, they will also have to deal with the expectations of fans and the rugby league world. But if they can reach their potential, the Warriors are a smokey for the title.
2011 best line-up
1. Lance Hohaia 2. Kevin Locke 3. Krisnan Inu 4. Jerome Ropati 5. Manu Vatuvei 6. James Maloney 7. Brett Seymour 8. Sam Rapira 9. Aaron Heremaia 10. Russell Packer 11. Simon Mannering 12. Lewis Brown 13. Micheal Luck
Interchange: 14. Feleti Mateo 15. Ben Matulino 16. Ukuma Ta'ai 17. Alehana Mara
Coach: Ivan Cleary
The vital stats
Finished: 5th and Qualifying Finalists
Played: 24 matches (2 byes)
Won: 14 matches
Lost: 10 matches
Points for: 539 points
Points against: 486 points
Points differential: +53
Top pointscorer: James Maloney (five-eighth) - 142 points [10 tries, 73 goals, 2 field goals]
Top tryscorer: Manu Vatuvei (wing) - 20 tries
Club player of the year
Manu Vatuvei (wing)