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NRL 2019 season preview: New Zealand Warriors

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19th February, 2019
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Long the NRL’s most inconsistent club, the Warriors are under the pump to turn things around in 2019, but that’s been the case for the last decade.

The Auckland-based outfit have been blessed with some of the most talented rosters in the competition, but more often than not have been unable to make anything of it.

Potential is the word you think about more than any other, and 2019 looks like it might be another one of those – although without Shaun Johnson and Simon Mannering, this may be their worst roster in some time.

Stephen Kearney is going to have his work cut out for him this year, given 2018 was (numerically, at least) their best performance in the last five years and they still struggled come finals time.

The only team in New Zealand actually had a good gameplan last year, featuring a lot of rushing defence, compressing the game into the middle third, and using their big pack to roll teams.

With threats out wide and the explosiveness of Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, it worked every now and again, which has seemed to be the way with the Warriors since they were first granted entry into the competition.

Simon Mannering celebrates with Shaun Johnson.

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

You can only guess more of the same is on the way, and given consistency is their big issues, a young, unproven half to replace Johnston doesn’t improve those prospects.

Club fact file

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Colours: black and white
Home ground: Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland
Premierships: zero
Minor premierships: one
Best finish in last five years: 2018 – eighth
2018 finish: eighth – lost in Week 1 of finals
Coach: Stephen Kearney
Captain: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

Squad

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c), Bunty Afoa, Leeson Ah Mau, Blake Ayshford, Gerard Beale, Adam Blair, Lachlan Burr, David Fusitu’a, Blake Green, Tohu Harris, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Peta Hiku, Solomone Kata, Adam Keighran, Karl Lawton, Sam Lisone, Issac Luke, Ken Maumalo, Taane Milne (Wests Tigers) Agnatius Passi, Isaiah Papali’i, Hayze Perham, Leivaha Pulu, Nathaniel Roache, Ligi Sao, Tevita Satae, Jazz Tevaga

Changes
Ins: Leeson Ah Mau (St George Illawarra Dragons), Lachlan Burr (Canterbury Bulldogs), Adam Keighran (Penrith Panthers), Taane Milne (Wests Tigers)
Outs: James Gavet (Newcastle Knights), Anthony Gelling (Widnes Vikings), Shaun Johnson (Cronulla Sharks), Mason Lino (Newcastle Knights), Simon Mannering (retirement), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Canberra Raiders)

While the club do have some vacant spots in their roster, recruitment has been poor, with front-rower James Gavet and half Mason Lino having both gone to the Knights. Given Johnson’s departure, the loss of Lino will sting even more.

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Anthony Gelling and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad are the other two exits, to Widnes in England and the Canberra Raiders respectively. Neither are huge losses, but they haven’t replaced effectively, and depth looks weak.

Headlining the recruitment list is former Dragons prop Leeson Ah Mau. Consistently one of the Red V’s best off the bench last year, the Kiwi prop wanted to be closer to home, and this could take his game to another level.

Lachlan Burr is also a promising signing, from Canterbury, while Adam Keighran has joined from the Panthers.

There is no big name there though, so given what they have lost, this is going to be tough.

Spine
This has to be Blake Green’s team in 2019, taking over from Johnson as the team’s key creative figure.

Blake Green

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

He will be joined in the halves by Chanel Harris-Tevita, who has been rated as one of the nation’s most outstanding youngsters, and was the 2017 National Youth Competition player of the year. He has rugby league in his blood, given his grandfather represented the New Zealand Maori.

Harris-Tevita was a big reason the Warriors made the finals of the NSW Cup last year, and while Keighran could also fill the void, it’s thought Kearney wants to give the local talent the first run.

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» The Roar’s 2019 NRL preview series

The other positions in the spine pick themselves, with Tuivasa-Sheck set to once again captain the side from the back. He needs to have a huge season, but more importantly, not get injured.

Issac Luke also had his best season in years during 2018, and will start at hooker without a shadow of a doubt.

Backs
As long as they hang onto the ball and cut out silly errors, this is one of the best backlines in the competition.

David Fusitu’a is among the most damaging wingers in the game, finishing 2018 with 23 tries, leading the competition by some distance.

His running game also gets sets off to a good start, and with Ken Maumalo doing similar on the other side of the field, this is one of the best back threes going.

Inside them will be Peta Hiku and Solomone Kata. Hiku is a utility and his best position isn’t clear, but his spot in this team is, while Kata is also dangerous in attack. What they do need to tidy up is their defence. Too often last year they were burnt on the edges with poor decision making and gaps opening up all over the shop.

The back five virtually picks itself, but with Ayshford and Beale likely to play NSW Cup, they have some good talent waiting in the wings.

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Forwards
The Warriors have often had a pack that should get the job done, but often that hasn’t been the case.

Losing defensive brick wall Mannering isn’t going to help, given he regularly made north of 40 tackles at an excellent efficiency and played big minutes.

Agnatius Passi and Ah Mau are expected to be the duo starting in the front row, although Kearney had a liking for Bunty Afoa and Sam Lisone at times last year, so don’t be surprised to see that swap around.

Regardless, all four should be in the 17.

Tohu Harris takes the first spot in the second row and Adam Blair will wear the No.13 jersey, but the other second-row spot is less certain.

Captain Adam Blair of New Zealand

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

The enormously talented youngster Isaiah Papali’i will probably have first crack, although Leivaha Pulu, Tevita Satae and Ligi Sao will all be throwing their hands up for both that spot and one on the bench.

Origin impact
As usual, Origin should actually be a period of the season where they can pick up cheap wins.

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Blake Green might be in the discussion for New South Wales if they are at the top of the table, but even that would be a long shot, especially given the Blues won last year.

Likely best 17
1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c)
2. David Fusitu’a
3. Peta Hiku
4. Solomone Kata
5. Ken Maumalo
6. Blake Green
7. Chanel Harris-Tevita
8. Agnatius Passi
9. Issac Luke
10. Leeson Ah Mau
11. Tohu Harris
12. Isaiah Papali’i
13. Adam Blair
14. Jazz Tevaga
15. Bunty Afoa
16. Leivaha Pulu
17. Sam Lisone

Keys to the season

Can Blake Green make the Warriors consistent?
One of the best moves the Warriors have made in the last few years was bringing Green across the ditch from the Sea Eagles.

Wherever Green has gone, he has had a calming influence, making life easy on the halves partner.

However, this year, Green has to stand up and be the main man. Green’s last two halves partners have been Daly Cherry-Evans and, of course, Johnson, allowing him to sit back and play the role he is seemingly most comfortable in.

Harris-Tevita (or Keighran) has never played a first-grade game, and while the raw talent is there, consistency and proven ability to get the job done at NRL level isn’t.

This is going to go one of two ways. Either the Warriors continue to play the style they have and it turns into smoke without the magic of Johnson, or they adapt and play more conservatively.

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The Warriors playing a conservative style is a sentence I never thought would be typed, but that may be their best chance this year, allowing Tuivasa-Sheck to bring the flare when he sees fit, but otherwise using the pack and Green’s kicking game to grind other teams down.

Don’t be afraid to fire it wide early
As much as the conservative style and dominating the middle third is important for the Warriors, so is using their explosive outside backs.

While they made their fair share of errors last year, Green and Co. must still find a way to get the ball into the hands of Fusitu’a and Maumalo.

They are two of the best, most explosive wingers in the competition, so ignoring them would be foolish.

David Fusitu'a New Zealand Warriors NRL Rugby League 2016

(AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

Points may be hard to come by, and while they shouldn’t be risking it all early in sets, it’s all about being calculated, catching tired defenders and finding the right timing and opportunities.

If they can use those players out wide, there is no reason they can’t be as exciting as they have been – even if the style of play does change.

Issac Luke must maintain his form
Luke’s form in 2018 was glorious. While his defence added plenty up the middle, it was his ability to catch markers napping and play with eyes-up vision out of dummy half which won the Warriors more games than any other factor.

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With the forwards again proving crucial, he has to capitalise on that, jumping out of dummy half, getting the ball wide and getting it out there early, and putting in big efforts week after week.

Luke had almost 2000 touches of the ball in 2018, and needs to be similar in 2019, dominating the game and linking with his creative players.

The experience he provides to a team of relative youngsters is also vital. Even without the captaincy last year, he played big minutes and became a voice of reason against tough teams.

Issac Luke of the Warriors.

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

Every premiership-winning side has a cagey veteran leading the way, and while the Warriors aren’t a premiership-winning side, they do have Luke to do the job at hooker.

Fixtures

Round Date Time (AEDT) Opponent Venue TV
1 Sat Mar 16 3pm Canterbury Bulldogs MT Smart Stadium Fox
2 Sun Mar 24 6:10pm Wests Tigers Campbelltown Stadium Fox
3 Sat Mar 30 3pm Manly Sea Eagles Christchurch Stadium Fox
4 Fri Apr 5 6pm Gold Coast Titans MT Smart Stadium Fox
5 Sat Apr 13 3pm South Sydney Rabbitohs Sunshine Coast Stadium Fox
6 Sat Apr 20 5:30pm North Queensland Cowboys MT Smart Stadium Fox
7 Thu Apr 25 7:50pm Melbourne Storm AAMI Park Nine/Fox
8 Sun May 5 2pm Newcastle Knights MT Smart Stadium Fox
9 Sat May 11 5:30pm St George Illawarra Dragons Suncorp Stadium Fox
10 Fri May 17 6pm Penrith Panthers Panthers Stadium Fox
11 Sat May 25 5:30pm Brisbane Broncos MT Smart Stadium Fox
13 Sat Jun 8 3pm Melbourne Storm MT Smart Stadium Fox
14 Fri Jun 14 6pm Gold Coast Titans CBus Super Stadium Fox
15 Sun Jun 30 2pm Penrith Panthers MT Smart Stadium Fox
16 Sat Jul 6 7:35pm Newcastle Knights McDonald Jones Stadium Fox
17 Sat Jul 13 5:30pm Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium Fox
18 Fri Jul 19 6pm Cronulla Sharks Westpac Stadium Fox
19 Sat Jul 27 3pm Parramatta Eels Western Sydney Stadium Fox
20 Fri Aug 2 6pm Canberra Raiders MT Smart Stadium Fox
21 Fri Aug 9 6pm Manly Sea Eagles MT Smart Stadium Fox
22 Sun Aug 18 2pm Sydney Roosters Sydney Cricket Ground Fox
23 Sat Aug 24 3pm Cronulla Sharks Shark Park Fox
24 Fri Aug 30 6pm South Sydney Rabbitohs MT Smart Stadium Fox
25 Sat Sep 7 3pm Canberra Raiders GIO Stadium Fox

The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Manly Sea Eagles, Gold Coast Titans, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Melbourne Storm, Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers, Brisbane Broncos, Cronulla Sharks, Canberra Raiders
Best home run: Round 11 – Round 15 (three out of four)
Worst away run: Round 17 – Round 25 (five out of nine)
Five-day turnarounds: one

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Fixture analysis
More than anything, the Warriors need a chance to build momentum by playing in their own backyard in front of what is, normally, a parochial Auckland crowd.

They don’t get that at any point of the season though, with the club only having three stretches throughout the year where they play three out of four at home, always followed up by games on the road. In what is an unbalanced fixture for some clubs, the Warriors have copped the rough end of the stick.

However, they have copped only a single five-day turnaround, and – based on last year’s ladder – the Sea Eagles, Titans, Knights and Raiders are all good teams to cop twice (although, the Titans and Knights, in particular, could be big improvers). They also have the rabble of Cronulla twice, and the unknown of South Sydney and Brisbane under new coaches.

Their other double-up is Penrith.

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Prediction

It’s a changing of the guard moment in Auckland, with Shaun Johnson out and maybe Blake Green stamping his authority on the team.

However, with a young half next to Green and a lack of depth in key areas, while you might see the Warriors competing for a finals spot in 2020, it won’t happen this time around.

I’ll be surprised if they escape the bottom four, although there are a lot of teams competing for positions just outside the eight, and it could all end up being a logjam.

13th.

We will move onwards to 12th on Friday.