NRL 2017 season preview: New Zealand Warriors

Keith Sheldon Roar Guru

By , Keith Sheldon is a Roar Guru

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    The Warriors have to make the eight this year. I mean, I know they had to make the eight last year, and the year before that, but they have to make it this year, right?

    The last time the side from New Zealand made the top eight was 2011 – only Parramatta have had a longer finals drought.

    Last year, their season was a write-off as a result of off-field shenanigans, form plummets, weird player selections and injuries to key personnel – and all that with three-quarters of the international New Zealand spine.

    So how do you improve a team that has most of an international spine? You sign the final pieces.

    The Warriors have signed troubled former Eel Kieran Foran, and it has been confirmed that he can play starting from Round 3. They also recruited former New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney.

    Will this be enough to finally get this team back into the eight?

    This spine is the polar opposite of St George’s.

    Shaun Johnson is a real livewire, Issac Luke demonstrated in his time at the Rabbitohs that he certainly knows how to play, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is one of the game’s premier fullbacks, and Foran is one of the best five-eighths in the game.

    With Johnson, Luke and Tuivasa-Sheck providing spark, and Foran being the calm, controlling influence he was at Manly, if this spine gels they will be hard to stop.

    The forward pack is also great. Ben Matulino and Jacob Lillyman are a fearsome starting pair, while Bodene Thompson, Josh Hoffman and Simon Mannering are great defensively, have a lot of experience and can run a good line. They only thing they lack is power, which Bunty Afoa provides off the bench.

    Also, while most of the other backs are iffy, Solomone Kata is a quality player, and unlike previous talented New Zealand backs, like Konrad Hurrell, he doesn’t have an attitude problem, which means he should be playing for this side for years to come.

    Shaun Johnson running with football

    Unfortunately, Kata is a shining light in a sea of mediocre backs. Tuimoala Lolohea is a half they are slotting at the wing due to a lack of better options and because he is too good to leave out of the team. Meanwhile, Manu Vatuvei used to fluctuate between amazing and terrible, but now he fluctuates between mediocre and terrible performances. At least he has become more consistent.

    In my South Sydney preview, I had a question mark against a lot of their strengths. The same applies to the Warriors spine.

    On paper it is fantastic, but all of them have issues that may hamper their 2017.

    Luke was terribly out of form last year, Johnson has struggled to maintain the form that saw the Warriors charge into the 2011 grand final, and Tuivasa-Sheck is coming back from a major knee surgery, so who knows what impact it will have on his play.

    Finally, there is Foran. We all saw the meltdown he had, and I am not getting into the issue of whether or not he should play again, however considering what happened last year is he in the right mindset to play?

    That feeds into the other major concern with New Zealand: their culture. There are so many examples of the Warriors phoning performances in and just not caring, as well as all sorts of off-field mischief. It is one of the reasons they have been underachievers for years and the reason for the gulf between this side’s best and worst.

    Additionally, Kearney may have been a successful international coach, however there is a world of difference between coaching a side for three games a year and coaching a side all season. Kearney has been a head coach before, for Parramatta in 2011 and 2012, when he won ten matches from 42. 24 per cent is not a good winning record, and while that side had decent defence, they looked aimless in attack.

    Kearney has probably learnt a thing or two since then, but I still have questions over his ability.

    This is going to be one of my riskiest predictions, but the Warriors will miss the eight again.

    Yeah, they have a ridiculously good side, but they have had a really good side for years and that has meant bugger all. I have just been Pavlovian conditioned now to believe they will disappoint.

    They have the potential to finish in the top eight, probably even in the top four, but I just can’t see them doing it. They will finish 10th and once again disappoint.

    2016 finish: 10th

    Predicted 2017 finish: 10th

    Gains: Kieran Foran

    Losses: Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Lane, Jonathan Wright, Henare Wells

    Full-strength team
    1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
    2. Tuimoala Lolohea
    3. David Fusitu’a
    4. Solomone Kata
    5. Manu Vatuvei
    6. Kieran Foran
    7. Shaun Johnson
    8. Ben Matulino
    9. Issac Luke
    10. Jacob Lillyman
    11. Bodene Thompson
    12. Josh Hoffman
    13. Simon Mannering
    14. Jazz Tevaga
    15. Bunty Afoa
    16. Albert Vete
    17. Charlie Gubb