The curious case of Ben Matulino will be another club’s to ponder in 2018.
The veteran Warriors and Kiwis prop announced following Tuesday night’s defeat in Melbourne that he would be linking with former coach Ivan Cleary at Wests Tigers next season.
That seems like a good move for the likeable Matulino. He played his best football under Cleary, rising from chubby junior back row prospect to at one stage be included in serious discussions about who was the best prop in the game.
For the Warriors, the departure of a player they signed to a development contract while still a teenager playing club footy in Wellington is undoubtedly a blow. Matulino has been a loyal servant, clocking up 197 games. In many of them he was excellent. In all of them he put his body on the line. But his effectiveness blew hot and cold, particularly since the shoulder charge was banned in 2013.
Dubbed Big Ben, Matulino’s ability to time a shoulder charge made him the greatest bell ringer in the game. But the game he grew up playing drifted away from him in the name of player safety.
A rule change that happened virtually overnight denuded Matulino of his greatest weapon, and his point of difference in a game where athleticism among big forwards is no longer rare.
Once one of the most feared forwards in the game, Matulino at times became just another very good NRL prop. It was a transition Warriors fans struggled with. Matulino’s apparent ambivalence added to frustrations about his form, but is wrong to suggest he didn’t care when things didn’t go well.
The truth was the exact opposite. If anything, Matulino took things to heart too much. At one stage he contemplated walking away from the game altogether as he simply wasn’t enjoying it.
It may well be that, after five tough seasons, his love for the game has waned again. If that’s the case, hopefully he can rediscover it at the Tigers.
Progress, when it comes to the Warriors, continues to exist in the eye of the beholder.
The 20-14 defeat by the Storm in Melbourne leaves the Warriors languishing in 12th spot with a third of the regular season completed. It wasn’t exactly hard to see this slide coming. Consecutive road trips to genuine title threats Canberra and Melbourne produced the expected harvest of zero NRL points.
The future, though, remains much tougher to predict. Just as with the Raiders in round seven, for large parts of their clash against the 7-1 Storm, the Warriors were the better team. Their ruck speed was good, they were slick in attack and rock solid in defense. It was a good enough effort to see them leading after 62 minutes, but never seemed likely to have them in front after 80.
Curiously, it was almost as if the teams’ traditional roles were reversed. The Warriors’ two tries were wonderfully executed set plays, with big guns Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck prominent in their execution. The level of precision was Storm-like. Conversely, the Storm’s points came largely from individual genius.
Warriors fans will question a winning try that, for all its brilliance, included a forward pass and possibly a foot in touch, but that’s the Storm for you. They find a way to win. They remain the team the Warriors want to be – and may well become.
The Warriors are playing well this season. Their 3-5 record doesn’t exactly scream dramatic improvement, but improve they have. Exactly a year ago the club was investigating what went wrong in a 42-0 thrashing in Melbourne, and uncovering a widespread substance abuse issue at the club.
This time around they are kicking themselves for not beating the best team in the competition on their own patch. That’s progress.