All in the mind as Warriors get ready for a last roll of the dice
No more excuses ... Warriors duo Kevin Locke and Sione Lousi will be hoping for an improved performance in tomorrow's match against Cronulla in Auckland. The Warriors need a win to keep their finals hopes alive. Photo: Getty Images
STARING down the barrel of their first finals absence for three years, the desperate Warriors are hopeful "the penny has dropped" on their mental frailties.
Blowing successive 18-point buffers and displaying an inability to stay focused and urgent against Newcastle and Manly in the past two weeks was inexcusable.
"It is the worst way to lose, after getting ahead by 18 points. It's not a good look when they are doing a job on you in the last 20 minutes," Warriors fullback Kevin Locke admitted.
"It's tough playing NRL in a lot of ways. Even for guys in their second year like Shaun [Johnson] and even myself, we're still experiencing the fact that it's an 80-minute game and anything can happen.
"You've got to be mentally tough and not let anything affect you. It's hard trying to play in front of massive crowds. If you stuff up, it's how you react to it. Some of the boys get a bit down."
Missing the top eight would instigate a similar, sombre attitude at club headquarters.
Only once (2009) in the past five years have the Warriors failed to make the post season.
But with five games remaining in this frustrating campaign, Brian McClennan's men can only drop one match to avoid an abrupt fall from the giddy heights of last year's grand final.
"If we get four out of the five we might be a chance, but we really need to win all five," Warriors hooker Nathan Friend predicted before tomorrow's 150th milestone appearance in Auckland against the fading Cronulla Sharks, boosted by the return of State of Origin stars Paul Gallen and Todd Carney and Kiwis enforcer Jeremy Smith.
There is no wriggle room left. The Warriors must arrest their potentially terminal decline now, or the life-support system keeping their stuttering season alive might as well be shut off early.
The injury-enforced absence of experienced leaders Micheal Luck, Sam Rapira, Jerome Ropati and, more recently, captain Simon Mannering, has thrust many of the Warriors' rookies into starting senior roles too soon. Locke's comments emphasise that assured, guiding voices are missing, primarily on the edges.
Friend also believed the team's younger members were receiving fast-tracked educations in how to cope with pressure. Mental lapses were one issue that needed fixing. Fitness levels were another concern.
"If you're not mentally strong you make the wrong decisions at those times. A little is that, and also fatigue," Friend said of repeated back-end capitulations.
"We've got a lot of young kids who haven't experienced what we have this year. A lot of it is in the back of their minds knowing it could happen again.
"I probably thought I was ready for first grade when I came on the scene but it wasn't until I had 50 or 100 games under my belt that you can get your head around what's happening out there.
"It's something that will come with time on the paddock."
But McClennan's message was simple: no matter what the scoreboard, his players should never believe it would be enough.
He felt, this time, the instruction had been heeded.
"You can't clock off and you can't wind the clock down. I believe the penny has dropped," the coach said.
"If you aren't going to play footy and you aren't going to work hard on your defensive systems, you will get run down."