Warriors the poisoned chalice of the rugby league coaching world

Since entering the competition in 1995 the New Zealand Warriors have been through 13 coaches, they have played finals football eight times, won one Minor Premiership and lost two Grand Finals. They have long been considered the great underachievers; high on flare, completely unbeatable on their day, inexplicably poor when it is not.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2019, the Warriors have been homeless, playing out of various Australian venues to avoid the quarantine lockdown of their homeland. It has been a tough time for the players and their families, whose sacrifice during that time helped save the NRL from complete financial collapse.

On the field in 2022, their enthusiasm has seemingly waned. With Nathan Brown in his second year as head coach, they had limped to four wins, three of them in succession from Round 3. But, from Round 6 onwards, they have beaten only the Raiders, while copping a couple of hidings, including a 70-10 embarrassment against the Storm on ANZAC Day.

The final straw appeared to be Brown's revelation that he was not prepared to relocate to New Zealand long-term and would not commit beyond the term of his contract, which was set to expire at the end of next year. Brown parted ways with the club on Tuesday morning as a result.

Brown is the latest in a steady stream of coaches, starting with John Monie the club's inaugural coach. After two mid-field finishes under Monie, the club was lured across to Super League for the 1997 season, during which Monie was replaced by Frank Endacott.

Endacott remained through the first season back in the reunited NRL competition before being being replaced by Kiwi rugby league legend Mark Graham in 1999. In his two years in charge Graham steered the team to 11th and 13th place finishes. In their first six seasons, the Warriors had failed to play finals football and Graham was soon marched, replaced by Daniel Anderson.

Anderson's tenure marked the first success for the club, with a finals appearance in 2001, followed by a Minor Premiership and Grand Final loss in 2002. They also played finals football in 2003, before a slow start to 2004 saw Anderson replaced by Tony Kemp. Kemp only lasted until the end of 2005 before being replaced by Ivan Cleary, who would go on to be the club's longest serving coach, with six years at the helm, during which they made the finals four times and lost a second Grand Final in 2011.

At the height of the Cleary reign, the Warriors pulled off what was considered one of the greatest finals upset in NRL history, a 18-15 victory over the salary-cap-dodging Melbourne Storm.

Cleary, more than any Warriors coach before or after him, assembled a balanced team, encouraged them to play with flare, and somehow managed to motivate them to the level of consistency required to succeed in the NRL. Other coaches were seen to crack down too firmly on error rates, the result being football that was un-Warrior like and unenjoyable for fan and player alike. The secret to success seemed to be a delicate balancing act between a free reign and the necessary disciple. Cleary found the balance, enjoyed success and was head-hunted by the Panthers because of it.

Brian McClennan took over for the 2012 season after Cleary departed for his first stint at the Panthers. McClennan didn't see out the year, replaced by Tony Iro, who in turn was replaced by Matthew Elliott for the 2013 season. Elliott didn't make it to the end of 2014, replaced by Andrew McFadden who had a further unfruitful two years in the job.

There were great hopes held for Stephen Kearney who took over for the 2017 season and he managed to steer the club to the finals again in 2018. He didn't make it to the end of 2020, before he was replaced by Todd Payten. The Warriors showed some promise under Payten in difficult COVID isolation times, but he had already been snapped up by the Cowboys with whom he is enjoying great success this season.

Brown signed to take over the role for the 2021 season, but after struggling for 18 months, was today shown the door. Club legend Stacey Jones has been given the job of interim coach.

It remains the ultimate challenge in the world of rugby league coaching. To somehow harness the free-spirited natural talent of the Warriors players, without stifling them. To have them turn up every week at their unbeatable best, to finally climb that premiership mountain, for the benefit of the club and the nation it represents.

Having piloted the Warriors to the 2002 Grand Final, scoring one of the great individual tries of rugby league's showpiece day, Jones may well be the man to revitalise the Kiwi franchise.

A return home to New Zealand and Mt. Smart Stadium next month won't hurt either.