The New Zealand Warriors in 2019, much like almost every year in the history of the club, were consistently inconsistent.
There doesn’t appear to be any specific reason for this, though a contract dispute resulting in the loss of their star half Shaun Johnson in the pre-season was telling. Though consistent performances are not something Johnson has ever been renowned for, he is a player capable of producing wins through his own sheer brilliance.
Several players were tried in the 5-8 positions (Aam Keighran, Chanel Harris-Tavita and mid-season recruit Kodi Nikorima) as the club tried to find the right man to replace Johnson.
Additionally, all hooking options (Isaac Luke, Nathaniel Roache and Karl Lawton) suffered injuries at times. This rotation of players through two key positions would undoubtedly add to the difficulties of developing any consistency on the field.
The Warriors’ biggest asset is undoubtedly the skill and power of their back three. At fullback is one of the game’s elite players in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as shown by his 2018 Dally M Medal. Joining him is 2019 winger of the year Ken Maumalolo and 2018’s top NRL try scorer David Fusitua, who had a quiet 2019 without Johnson’s flair inside him.
These three will again provide great starts to the Warriors sets and finish off any attacking opportunity in 2020.
Joining them in the backline will be a centre pairing of Peta Hiku and most likely Taane Milne. Despite having played 11 Tests for New Zealand, Hiku remains a very underrated centre. Meanwhile, Milne will be looking to finally fulfill his potential after off-season issues stalled his career.
Their backline depth is strong. Gerard Beale, who will miss the start of the season through injury, and Patrick Herbert will be undoubtedly be called upon throughout the year.
There is little to talk about with the club’s forward pack. They aren’t a pack that will dominate opposition sides nor are they a pack that will be dominated. They will be missing their best middle defender. They are certainly capable of providing enough attacking opportunities and field position for their halves.
The Warriors, however, will be wanting more from their edge backrowers. They will be hoping that star backrower Tohu Harris can have his first injury-free season in Warriors colours, having played just 13 and 16 games the last two years after joining the club from the Storm.
On the other edge, I look forward to seeing young Isaiah Papali’i continuing to develop his game. He has been solid the last two years after being an absolute superstar coming through the junior systems. If these two can show their best they will provide attacking threats on both sides of the field with first class hole running, off-loading and ball playing.
Settling on their best spine combination will be crucial for the Warriors to be successful in 2020. While Tuivasa-Sheck has a mortgage on the fullback position and the steady Blake Green will be in the halves. The final places will be determined by where coach Stephen Kearney chooses to play Nikorima. Nikorima came to the club looking to cement a spot in the halves, however I believe he is best used in tandem with recruit Wade Egan at hooker.
The rise of Chanel Harris-Tavita was the highlight of 2019, and his immense talent would be wasted being used as a bench utility. However, whether the usually cautious Kearney is prepared to put a player with just 13 games experience into the no.6 position ahead of Nikorima remains to be seen.
Predictions from some pundits about the Warriors possibly being a wooden spoon team appear a long way off the mark. At worst, the individual brilliance of Tuivasa-Sheck and to a lesser extent Harris-Tavita should win them enough games to not finish last. However, at their best, the Warriors have shown they have a side capable of matching any team in the comp.
So Roarers, who will be the no.6? And how far can the Warriors go this year?