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The first two rounds of this year’s NRL season have seen plenty of upsets, but there is one team that is making me look a right fool at the moment and that’s the New Zealand Warriors.
It’s way too early to declare that the predictions I made at the start of the season were incorrect, but should the Warriors continue with the form that has so far seen them defeat the South Sydney Rabbitohs 32-20 in Round 1 and the Gold Coast Titans 20-8 in Round 2, then placing them at the bottom of the ladder will prove to be a significant error on my part.
In commentary about the Warriors first two victories, there has been plenty of focus on a couple of players.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been a standout. Last weekend against the Rabbitohs, he had two try assists and looked dangerous every time he touched the ball. He also made a try-saving tackle on Alex Johnston and bundled him into touch, which Stephen Kearney called out in particular as a moment of inspiration for his squad.
Against the Titans, Tuivasa-Sheck scored another try, saved another and almost made 200 metres.
David Fusitu’a is also running in tries for fun. He scored a double against the Rabbitohs and bagged another double against the Titans. ‘The Fus’ is certainly an entertainer and after his World Cup appearance for Tonga last year, footy fans are coming to expect athletic finishes from the 23-year-old.
And then there is Shaun Johnson. Last weekend the loss for the Bunnies was played down because ‘when Shaun Johnson is in one of those moods, there’s very little you can do about it’. In Round 1, he finished the game with two linebreaks and two try assists, but most pleasing of all was the return of his running game, which the star halfback is known for. Then against the Titans that continued with another two try assists and two linebreaks.
But these players are not new to the Warriors. It doesn’t make sense to me that all of a sudden these players all find themselves to be in exquisite form. So what’s changed?
There have been two differences.
As a rugby league fan, I don’t have an expectation that my team will win every weekend. I do have an expectation, though, that the players will try their best each week and that the players are fit.
The men on the field are paid as professional athletes and it is completely unacceptable when I see a team that is clearly fat and unfit.
Fat and unfit are two words that I have used to describe the Warriors in years gone past, particularly the last two years where, despite having one of the most talented rosters in the NRL, the squad has finished towards the bottom end of the ladder.
I cannot make this accusation this year.
Plenty of that credit can belong to the new head of high performance, Alex Corvo, who comes to the Warriors having also done stints at the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm. He is a man with a reputation as a hard trainer, so much so that Adam Blair knew plenty of his Warriors teammates would get a ‘rude shock’ in pre-season.
For the first time in a long time, the Warriors look fit.
The errors that have been a feature of their game in years gone by have not disappeared – in fact, against the Rabbitohs they made ten errors and completed at under 70 per cent. But being fit means they are able to stay in it for the entire contest and produce performances that see the squad make 24 offloads.
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The player that seems to have benefited the most from this new fitness regime is Issac Luke, who is beginning to show signs that he is returning to the form which saw him as a stand-out player for Souths. At 88 kilograms, Luke dropped six kilos over the off-season, making him the leanest he has been since 2015. And it shows.
The second difference is Blake Green – a rugby league journeyman by any stretch of the imagination.
I underestimated what a positive influence he would be for the Warriors, but since his arrival, he has demonstrated he’s the perfect foil for Shaun Johnson. Green’s skill set allows him to help steer the Warriors allowing Johnson to play his natural game – a game which features plenty of attacking flair.
Many Warriors have also spoken about his professionalism, maturity and the impact he has had on other players. He has been called a leader – this also shows on the field.
It makes me extremely uncomfortable to say this, because I know I have been burned in the past… but the Warriors could be the real deal in 2018.
And even if they disappoint like they have in the past, they are playing attacking footy which I just can’t help getting around.