Most sports fans know the clich? of the brilliant rookie who is unable to repeat the heroics of his debut season in his sophomore year. This supposed second year syndrome is just as prevalent in rugby league as anywhere else, with Tasesa Lavea a recent rookie of the year winner who all but disappeared off the rugby league radar before returning to New Zealand to trial for the Auckland NPC team in that other rugby code.
In recent years, a similar fate has seemingly befallen NRL grand-finalists. No team has made back-to-back grand finals in the post-Super League era. In the five years immediately before Super League, at least one of the previous seasons grand finalists made a repeat trip in every year except 1994. From 1992-1996, there were only five different grand-finalists. From 1998-2002, there were eight. St George-Illawarra and Melbourne have rarely looked like genuine title-threats since their 1999 thriller. The Roosters made the 2000 final before slumping to 7th in 2001. Parramatta provides perhaps the best example of a grand-finalist slumping the following year. Early in 2002 it seemed they were capable of repeating their groundbreaking 2001 season, but their slide between mid 2002 and mid 2003 was about as sharp as could be imagined. So, as a Warriors fan, I am understandably concerned. Are the Warriors falling victim to the NRL's new second-year syndrome? Was 2002 a fluke, a blip on the radar not to be repeated in the near future? Or will the Warriors be like the Roosters, who were grand-finalists in 2000 and 2002, either side of a disappointing 2001?
Two of the leading lights for the 2002 Warriors were Kevin Campion and Ivan Cleary. Both were 30-something Australians, Campion regularly leading the tackle count, Cleary solid at fullback and an ace goal kicker, and both with immense experience. A number of critics suggested that the loss of these two players would have a very detrimental effect on the Warriors. Campion and Cleary provided a wealth of experience, and the general perception was that they were a calming influence in a team full of less experienced, but possibly more naturally talented players. Their departure could very conceivably be reason enough for a downfall in the Warrior's fortunes.
However, it is hard for a Warrior's fan to swallow what is essentially an excuse. The loss of Cleary in general play shouldn't have hit the side too hard- Cleary, although a goal kicking ace, was a 31 year old journeyman who never played representative football and offered little attacking threat from the back. Brent Webb is almost certainly a more explosive attacking weapon, while the return of Kiwi international Monty Betham, who sat out most of 2002 after a knee reconstruction, should have largely covered Campion's absence. Probably the biggest loss for the Warriors was Ali Lauiti'iti, the clubs 2002 player of the year, and possibly the most gifted forward in the NRL. The greatest difference between the Warriors thus far in 2003, and the 2002 team, is the surprising weakness of the attack. The successes of 2002 were built around electric attack, second phase play and offloading. So far this season, the Warriors rank a disappointing 10th in the NRL in points for, compared to third at the end of 2002. Clearly, the Warriors have not become the team that many predicted they would; overloaded with attacking talent but lacking in defensive steel. Goal-kicking is also a vital factor. In 2003 they have used no fewer than six goal-kickers as they have struggled to find a competent replacement for Cleary, who holds the record for most points in an NRL season.
Having said all this, the Warriors have still won 11 of 18 games. At the same stage last year they had won 13. On the surface it seems that fans have little to complain about. Lauiti'iti is back, but the Warriors have suffered an even worse blow with an injury to Stacey Jones threatening to ruin their run in to the play-offs, and perhaps see them missing the top 8 altogether. The proof will be in the pudding over the next few weeks, and the Warriors have had a happy knack in recent years of beating the big guns- something they will need to do in upcoming games against Brisbane and the Roosters. Unless the likes of Lauiti'iti can find some of their 2002 form, 2003 could be a year to forget for the Warriors.
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