There’s no doubt that the New Zealand Warriors have done it tough since the arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020.
That has been borne out in their performances on the field, as they finished in tenth and 12th places respectively in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, and they’re hardly setting the competition alight so far this year.
Various lockdowns and protocols have seen them relocate to NSW and Queensland over the last two years, and it seems an age since they played their last home game at Mt Smart Stadium, way back in August 2019, when they took on South Sydney in front of over 15,000 fans.
Stephen Kearney has since been punted, to be replaced by Nathan Brown after Todd Payten’s stint as interim coach, and only four players remain of the 17 who took the field in that home game against the Rabbitohs.
Brown is now attempting to rebuild the squad in difficult circumstances, which are exacerbated by the loss of experienced players over the last two years including Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, David Fusitua, Blake Green, Peta Hiku, Ken Maumalo, Issac Luke, Isaiah Papali’i, Leeson Ah Mau and Adam Blair.
Now, with their much-anticipated first home game in nearly three years set down for July 3, the Warriors are facing yet another potential setback, with three of their key players apparently reluctant to relocate to Auckland and heading for the exits.
First to pull the pin was Euan Aitken, who joined the Warriors in 2020 as an average centre, and has now rebuilt his career as a hard-working edge back-rower. The 26-year-old has been in solid form and has been a fixture in the Warriors side since Round 10 last year. While his contract is not due to expire until the end of the 2023, he has confirmed that he won’t be relocating to New Zealand at the end of this season, as he needs to remain in Australia next year for “family reasons”.
That’s a shame for the club who gave him a chance to extend his NRL career, which looked to be on the scrap heap when he was cut by the Dragons at the end of 2020.
The next player likely to depart at the end of the year is Matt Lodge, who has apparently turned down a lucrative offer to extend his contract beyond 2023 because apparently wants to return to a Sydney club.
Lodge has more baggage than the belly of an Airbus A380, and he was picked up by the Kiwi club last year when he wore out his welcome at the Broncos. At just 26 years of age, Lodge has the size, ability and future to be one of the best front rowers in the game, but discipline has let him down time after time.
While losing both Aitken and Lodge next year may not be ideal, the rumours that teenage star-fullback Reece Walsh may also be on the move will be alarming fans.
Walsh is signed until the end of 2023 and has a player option for 2024, however a ‘welfare’ clause in his contract may allow him to stay in Australia.
Aitken’s early release on compassionate grounds and Walsh’s much-publicised problems with the law during the last off-season could open the door for Walsh to walk away.
Walsh has been one of the few shining lights for the club since making his debut in Round 7 last year, and he would be very difficult to replace.
A number of clubs will be lining up to pay him well over the $450,000 per year he reportedly earns, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Wayne Bennett has Walsh’s number on speed dial.
You get the sense that if Walsh leaves, more players may weigh up their options, pore over their contracts, and decide whether they still want to base themselves in Auckland after spending the last couple of years enjoying life in Australia.