Everyone loves an underdog, and that sentiment cannot be expressed stronger than the displays of the proud and passionate New Zealand Warriors club in 2020.
When the final whistle went on Sunday night last week, signaling the end of an unlikely yet inspirational run for the finals from the Warriors, it seemed that the next two weeks would be a box-ticking exercise for the team and then a long-awaited return to New Zealand.
The surprising news on Wednesday that Addin Fonua-Blake was seeking a release from the final two years of his contract to move to a club outside of Sydney meant that the Warriors automatically had a one in seven chance of winning the Fonua-Blake lottery.
The early news was followed by a solid link with the Warriors as the early favourites who had already lodged an offer of $850,000 over three years.
Assuming the interest on both parties is genuine and a deal is done shortly, it will be fascinating as to the motivation.
Apart from an apparent desire to leave Sydney, the signing of Fonua-Blake is fascinating as the Warriors have spent many well documented months in Australia due to COVID-19, and it appears there is a better than 50 per cent chance they will be based out of Australia next year.
To sign a world-class middle forward for 2021 with that uncertainty would have seemed unlikely if not impossible prior to this week.
The importance of this signing cannot be understated for the Warriors.
For many years there has been a misconception that the Warriors have a massive pack. The reality is the likes of Bunty Afoa, Lachlan Burr, Agnatius Paasi and Leeson Ah Mau have been acceptable, but haven’t had seasons that led to front-foot domination for the Warriors.
The Warriors have always struggled to sign world-class forwards, particularly middle forwards. The last time they did was probably Ruben Wiki and Steve Price, and then that led to some salary cap issues.
Already for 2021 the Warriors have Ben Murdoch-Masila and Kane Evans arriving as part of a squad overhaul. The signing of Fonua-Blake would make the Warriors’ forward pack perfectly balanced.
Having these middle forwards allows for far better balance. Tohu Harris can focus on being a ball-playing back-rower, and with Eliesa Katoa, Jack Murchie and Jazz Tevaga in the squad, the overall depth has gone from shallower than a paddling pool to deeper that Lake Taupo.
In the past the Warriors have had Ken Maumalo and David Fusitua taking two hit-ups per set, often with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck taking a third. Next season these players should be back, and with these new middle forwards looking for metres, the Warriors’ go-forward will be in the top echelon of the NRL.
The Warriors have already had a taste of what the team can look like when they have good middle forwards – the loan players of Jack Hetherington, Poasa Faamausili and Daniel Alvaro showed the Warriors what a difference good middle forwards can do to improve a team.
The 2021 campaign may be another season on the road for the Warriors, but if they can get the signing of Fonua-Blake over the line, while it may not be their year, it would be a disappointing season if they weren’t pushing for a top-six spot.