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Opinion

Why Warriors are no certainty to make finals again despite overwhelming wave of optimism

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Expert
28th February, 2024
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Warriors fans are used to having their hopes built up every few years. And then crushed in the seasons in between. 

Their team enters the 2024 premiership with unusual elements hovering over them – optimism, confidence and expectation. 

It’s better than the usual pessimism, self-doubt and uncertainty. 

They’re on the sixth line of betting for the premiership and there or thereabouts for all the high-end markets like Grand Final, minor premiership and top four. 

But you would be mad to put too much faith in a club which has an unfortunate record of being hot-and-cold week to week, month to month and year to year. 

There is renewed hope for another finals tilt after last year’s astounding rise from wooden spoon candidates coming off a 6-18 season to a 16-8 juggernaut which finished in the top four.

Roster wise, they have been boosted by the addition of Broncos forward Kurt Capewell and a couple of favourite sons returning from a hiatus in nowhere in particular – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Chanel Harris-Tavita. 

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They actually have one of the most experienced squads in the NRL so it’s unlikely a collective second-year syndrome will be a problem, even for coach Andrew Webster, who stunned all and sundry with the results he achieved in his rookie year. 

But still there are question marks over the Warriors’ ability to again be contenders. 

First of all, no opposition team will take them lightly this time around. No one will admit they did that in 2023 but when the Warriors and the Dolphins got off to hot starts and tapered off midway through the season, everyone expected them both to fade into the background.

But while the Redcliffe outfit did just that as injuries exposed the Dolphins’ depth, the Warriors surged to win 10 of 11 to wrap up the most improbable of top-four berths. 

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is tackled. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is tackled. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

And while they have bolstered their roster with three seasoned professionals, Capewell’s form tapered off last year with Brisbane, Harris-Tavita was riddled with inconsistency before he took a 12-month sabbatical and Tuivasa-Sheck will be playing out of position at centre, where he has never lined up in his previous 195 NRL appearances. 

RTS looked strong, particularly in defence, in the pre-season trials but is he being wasted away from fullback. 

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Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad enjoyed a bounceback year in the Warriors No.1 jersey after his Raiders stint petered out but switching him to another spot in the backline to allow a Dally M Medal winner to play fullback could be a better option for Webster.

Johnson is coming off a career-best year in the halves and hopefully he can replicate that form.

But as brilliant as he can be, the 33-year-old former Kiwi international has not been known for his consistency or durability. 

In playing 25 matches last year it was only the sixth time in 13 seasons that he has lined up in 20 or more games. 

Weighing in his favour is the fact that he has made a successful transition to a different style of halfback. Much like Wests Tigers legend Benji Marshall, who also made a name for himself with scintillating solo attacking moves early in his career before becoming better at setting up teammates, Johnson is now an elite facilitator.

His 29 try assists for 2023 was only the second time he’s topped that stat since his rookie season ended in the 2011 Grand Final loss to Manly and easily his best haul on that front. 

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AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 26: Shaun Johnson of the Warriors celebrates his try during the round four NRL match between New Zealand Warriors and Canterbury Bulldogs at Mt Smart Stadium on March 26, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Shaun Johnson of the New Zealand Warriors. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Another player integral to the Warriors’ hopes of proving last year was no fluke is prop Addin Fonua-Blake, who requested a release in the summer only for the club to quite rightly say no before cutting a deal so that he stays before heading to Conulla at season’s end.

Webster has stated that there has been nothing on or off the training field to suggest AFB won’t finish his Warriors stint on a high note but if there is any drop-off in form in the early rounds, it won’t be long before whispers emerge questioning his commitment.

Their pack has already copped a blow with the departure to Canterbury of Josh Curran, who has been one of their most impactful players in recent years. 

His tackle-breaking ability could be missed more than the Warriors realise. 

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Canberra, rightly so, are the widespread pick as the team most likely to plunge out of finals contention from last year’s top eight. If the Raiders manage to avoid the bottom four with their ageing roster that no longer has Jack Wighton, that in itself will be an achievement.

The Knights still have to prove that they can back up their rapid rise to fifth in the second half of last season while Cronulla could be shaky propositions for the top eight after plateauing last year. 

South Sydney, Parramatta, Manly and North Queensland are desperate to return to the playoffs after down seasons while the likes of Gold Coast, the Dolphins and, if you squint, the Bulldogs are playoff smokies.

Now firmly entrenched as everyone’s second favourite team, they have goodwill on their side but that counts for little when the referee’s whistle is blown. 

The pressure is on the Warriors to back up their breakthrough campaign and qualify for the playoffs in successive years for only the fourth time in their 30th season. 

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