NRL.com continues its club-by-club review the 2018 season with Kent Gray examining the New Zealand Warriors' best campaign in seven seasons – and their utterly deflating demise in the first week of the finals.
Last Saturday's elimination at the claws of the James Maloney-inspired Panthers proved a strangely poetic microcosm of the Warriors' season.
Largely written off beforehand (as they were pre-season), the Warriors roared out of the gates at ANZ Stadium only to inexplicably stumble (think Shaun Johnson's slip with the try-line begging for symbolism) just when it looked like they were ready to click into top gear.
The Warriors will rue the inability to secure a home final and perhaps even a double chance with late-season losses to the Titans and Bulldogs.
Stephen Kearney's men can also wonder what might have been had talismanic captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck been able to train the week before the Penrith final, let alone finish the match.
Thankfully it wasn't a simple case of another season, the same old (albeit slightly delayed) heartache for the club's supporters.
Surviving into September for the first time since reaching the 2011 grand final is a nod to the club's shrewd off-season recruitment (Tohu Harris and Blake Green in particular) and Kearney's relentless tempering of expectations and egos.
The selfless behind-the-scenes role of Kearney's departing assistant Andrew McFadden cannot be underestimated, nor should new fitness coach Alex Corvo's autograph on a vastly improved defence (they conceded exactly 100 fewer points than 2017) be downplayed.
The Warriors' front office, led by Cameron George, also deserve kudos. Like Kearney, he largely shuns the limelight and has instead got on with winning back disenfranchised fans with results on the park and a refreshing respect for all visitors to Mt Smart Stadium off it, an attitude exemplified by the club's very public post-match saluting of referee Matt Cecchin among other outgoing NRL legends.
David Fusitu'a warrants mention after becoming the first Warriors player to top the NRL's regular season try-scoring stakes with 22 before equalling Francis Meli's club record 23 (set in 2003) courtesy of his ultimately inconsequential dot-down in the elimination final against Penrith.
But Roger Tuivasa-Sheck won the inaugural "Simon Mannering Medal" as Warriors player-of-the-year for good reason. RTS talks fast and plays much the same way, his jack-in-the-box runs for an average 178.4 metres spearheading one of the competition's most lethal 1-6-7-9 spines.
A stunning 338-metre, 12-tackle bust effort against the Knights in round 20 will live long in the memory of those at Mt Smart and thrust Tuivasa-Sheck into serious Dally M Medal contention although the Warriors' premature finals exit won't help that cause. Add three tries, 112 tackle breaks and some critical try-saving tackles in his 23 appearances and he led how all inspirational captains do – with professionalism and diligence on the training paddock and his eye-catching actions come game time.
Ken Maumalo had "what-if" moments all season long as centre Solomone Kata tucked the ball under one of his sizeable biceps and barrelled ahead, often blind to the yawning spaces in front of the big winger outside him. But we digress and perhaps a little unfairly so – Kata did contribute 12 tries to the Warriors campaign after all.
Instead, the moment the Warriors would really love to replay is when Tuivasa-Sheck clashed knees with Panthers hooker Sione Katoa and was forced out of the elimination final after 27 minutes. The Panthers' comeback from 12-2 was well and truly on by then but who knows what the tackle-busting fullback might have inspired in this topsy-turvy competition.
Stephen Kearney ahead of Simon Mannering's 300th match in round 25: "It can't be undersold, the fact that he's played 300 games for this footy club and every other week he's got to travel across to Australia and back. If I look at the AFL as an example of that, over in Western Australia, I only know one player who's played 300 games for the Fremantle Dockers, [Matthew] Pavlich. My point is, it's a pretty significant achievement that he's had to deal with all of that too, and still knock out all of the tackles that he knocks out and the minutes that he plays."
The Warriors' top-eight hopes were suddenly teetering after they followed up a tough 12-6 loss to visiting Melbourne with a limp 36-12 reverse at the Titans in round 20. But Kearney's men responded with a gritty defensive display the following week to topple St George Illawarra 18-12, a courageous performance Adam Blair sealed with exclamation mark hit on Jason Nightingale. It was the first time the Warriors had beaten the Dragons at WIN Stadium.
The 50-10 thrashing at the hands of the Storm on Anzac Day wasn't flash but this was the premiers at home and the Warriors were justifiably cut some slack after going into the AAMI Park clash with a 6-1 record at the time. There were no such excuses in round 17 when Penrith, minus their State of Origin stars, outclassed the visiting Warriors 36-4. A real low point.
The Warriors have re-signed veteran hooker Issac Luke and workaholic utility forward Jazz Tevaga. With Simon Mannering retired, these two signatures were necessary to maintain depth in the pack.
Much interest in 2019 will centre around the return of Leeson Ah Mau to the club where he started his NRL career in 2009. The prop has averaged 113.4 running metres and a 95 percent tackle efficiency for the Dragons this season.
It's hard to look forward with the disappointment of this season's missed opportunity still so raw. But with a relatively settled squad and the attacking influence of McFadden's replacement Todd Payten (from North Queensland) to freshen things up in pre-season training, there is much to get excited about leading into 2019.
For all the unfair criticism Johnson cops, the Warriors do need their high-priced half to take more games by the scruff of the neck but that process starts up front. If Ah Mau can repeat the 1025 (and counting) post-contact metres he's rattled off for the Dragons this season, that will be a good start.
There will also be interest in whether Kearney looks to bolster his centre stocks to find ball runners to feed off the class of Harris and Blair, as much as Kata, Peta Hiku and Gerard Beale all had their moments in 2018.
Kearney's rebuilding blueprint certainly looks on track to the point where the Warriors will be disappointed if they don't contest for the minor premiership and go deep into September.
Mind you, this is the Warriors we're talking about, a team that can change from half to half, let alone season to season. Remember, some things don't change. Bring on 2019's inevitable roller-coaster ride.