Opinion: Ill-disciplined NZ Warriors must rediscover culture, connection to club faithful

OPINION: One of the underlying principles of sports marketing is you can't rely on winning alone to sell your brand.

In any given season, there can be only one winner, so your product must offer other reasons for fans to build loyalty, whether that's a deep relationship with community, a professional attitude or colourful character, or simply an entertaining gameday experience.

The NZ Warriors know this better than most, because they're one of only two current teams that have never won an NRL championship, but somehow retain a passionate fanbase that blithely overlooks a tradition of disappointment to back its boys.

Heaven knows, we haven't seen a home fixture at Mt Smart Stadium for two seasons, while they’ve been trapped in Australia by COVID-19, so if you're eliminating reasons to stay loyal, gameday entertainment and community relationships are gone.

Many of the current roster have never stepped foot in New Zealand since signing on, so they have absolutely no idea who they represent.

With that context, Sunday's unacceptable season-ending performance against Gold Coast Titans - coincidentally, the other team never to win a title - could not have come at a worse time.

With their playoff hopes already down the gurgler - their coach wrote them off more than a month ago, when their captain was allowed to jump the sinking ship - the Warriors needed to produce something that would keep their supporters on board for next year.

Instead, they served up their worst showing of the 2021 campaign, whichever way you cut it.

The 44-0 scoreline represented their biggest loss and the only time they've been held scoreless, but even more disturbing was the complete lack of discipline shown, as three players - Jazz Tevaga, Matt Lodge and Kane Evans - were shown the sideline and a fourth - teen sensation Reece Walsh - cited afterwards.

There go flair and professionalism.

Nathan Brown's Warriors had ample opportunity to nail down a top-eight spot, even after he waved the white flag.

They lost seven games by a converted try or less - three of those were late field goals, others saw them simply capitulate over the final stages of matches they seemed to have under control.  

Matt Lodge banished against Gold Coast
Matt Lodge banished against Gold Coast. Photo credit: Getty

Their last six games offered one of the easiest schedules into the post-season and the Warriors showed some backbone, as they ground out their first winning streak of the year - three games - before somehow (inevitably) falling to the struggling Brisbane Broncos and coughing up a 16-0 lead against Canberra Raiders.

Then came that Gold Coast debacle - the Warriors couldn't score for the final 135 minutes of their season. 

If you're pointing a finger of blame, let's start with the three players sin-binned, who have blotted their records with thuggish play before.

In Round 12, Tevaga's bone-headed late charge on Heilum Luki saw him binned and during his absence, North Queensland Cowboys scored two converted tries to seize momentum in a contest they ultimately won with a last-minute field goal.

Of course, Evans produced that crazy performance against Cronulla Sharks that saw him marched, not once, but twice - surely that deserves permanent expulsion - as he let serial trashtalker Will Chambers get under his skin.

Lodge arrived at the Warriors mid-season with a lamentable record, on and off the field, copping a two-match ban in his very first game of the season for the Broncos. He also missed two matches for the Warriors, including the costly loss to his old club, and further blotted his reputation by flicking the bird at Gold Coast fans, as he left the field on Sunday.

Lodge's encounters with the law are well documented and many question whether he really represents the image his new club wants to portray moving forward. 

He certainly hasn't done much to silence those critics and may be one of those guys every club thinks it can reform, but all too often, it can't.

For a couple of seasons, the Warriors have lamented the absence of hard, tough middle forwards among their pack, but now they seem to have overcompensated, recruiting players more interested in inflicting big, late, high hits and spending time in judicial hearings.

Just as worrying is Walsh's inclination to get involved in scuffles that really shouldn't concern him. He has matchwinning talent, but not from the stands.

If anything, this latest display shows how much the Warriors miss the steadying influence of rugby-bound Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and injured Tohu Harris, two thorough professionals who should have provided the blueprint for the club culture.

As the team faces a third straight season marooned across the ditch, that responsibility now lies squarely on the shoulders of management, who must somehow figure out how to win games AND rebuild their connection to farflung fans that feel like they no longer know their team.

Brown and his staff have certainly hung their boss out to dry, and chief executive Cam George won't appreciate having to apologise for behaviour he has little control over - beyond the power to hire and fire. 

Grant Chapman is Newshub's online sports lead