Round 18 NRL action began at the Warriors’ second home, Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, and the ‘cake tin’ played host to a wet and slippery encounter between two desperate teams.
The New Zealand Warriors organisation shocked many when they decided not to offer Shaun Johnson a new contract.
In response, a scorned Johnson sought an early release to join the Cronulla Sharks. Here’s five reasons why the Warriors perhaps should have reconsidered.
1. Right-edge combinations
Warriors winger David Fusitu’a led the NRL in tries last season with 22. No prizes for guessing who orchestrated most of them – it was the right-sided playmaker. Johnson had a hand in 17 of those 22 tries, and directly assisted ten with either a kick or the final pass.
With all members healthy, the right edge combination of Johnson, Tohu Harris, Peta Hiku and Fusitu’a was deadly. The Warriors might have a hard time finding another halfback who can initiate sweep plays or throw long balls to the winger like Johnson can.
2. A lack of new signings
Johnson might have caught the Warriors off guard by refusing to play out the final year of his contract. Despite rumoured interest in Dylan Brown, the Warriors have not yet signed a direct replacement. The next halfback will therefore have to come from within.
Coach Stephen Kearney has recently nominated rookies Chanel Harris-Tavita and Hayze Perham as the frontrunners for this position. Harris-Tavita played in the halves last season for the Warriors’ NSW Cup side, and hence looms as the likely starter in Round 1. Perham played for the same side, but spent the year at fullback.
While both youngsters may have bright futures ahead of them, Johnson’s experience will be sorely missed. The Cronulla Sharks on the other hand have gained a veteran of 162 NRL games and 29 Test matches.
3. Mason Lino is a Newcastle Knight
The Warriors played six games without Johnson in 2018, winning three of them. Not bad, right? Mason Lino, Johnson’s previous understudy, played a major role in those wins.
However, Lino signed a two-year deal with Newcastle in September. With Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce set to be the Knights’ halves pairing in 2018, Lino is expected to start the season in NSW Cup.
Perhaps if the Warriors knew that Johnson would demand an early release, Lino would still be in Auckland.
4. Goal kicking
Johnson has never been a renowned sharpshooter, but he kicked at a respectable 76 per cent in 2018. Prior to that, he kicked a career-best 79 per cent in 2017. Johnson also kicks goals for the New Zealand Kiwis.
While these numbers are pedestrian compared to the likes of Nathan Cleary or Adam Reynolds, replacing Johnson won’t be easy. The Warriors do not have any standout goal kickers on their roster, meaning the duties will most likely fall to Issac Luke.
Luke has kicked at 78 per cent since joining the Warriors, albeit with a small sample size. Including his Souths days, Luke’s career goal kicking percentage is only 71 per cent with a larger sample.
Furthermore, Luke is no guarantee to play 80 minutes each week and only has a one-year deal with the Warriors. He hasn’t been a full time goal kicker since he played for Souths.
Rookie Chanel Harris-Tavita kicked goals in NSW Cup, but only at a paltry 65% conversion rate. Tohu Harris may be the better backup option to Issac Luke, having previously been a part-time goal kicker for the Melbourne Storm.
5. Blake Green may not be a dominant playmaker
Over the past four seasons, Blake Green has quietly been one of the more consistent halves in the NRL. He’s also played in big games, having started at five-eighth for the Melbourne Storm side that narrowly lost the 2016 grand final to Cronulla.
However, Green has largely been a complementary playmaker. He played alongside Cronk at Melbourne, Cherry-Evans at Manly and then Johnson at the Warriors. Green is therefore largely untested as a dominant half in the NRL.
Given that he is likely to partner a rookie halfback, the Warriors will most likely lean on Blake Green in fifth tackle situations this season. Only time will tell whether the veteran is up to the challenge.