New Zealand Warriors: 2018 season preview
2017 was more of the same from the Warriors; high expectations, early promise, unfilled potential and missed chances. Is the top eight a possibility this season?
Warriors fans would like to quickly forget the end of the 2017 season, which saw the New Zealand- based side finish 13th (equal with the Tigers and the Titans), just ahead of the last-placed Knights. They limped to nine losses on the trot by the end of the regular season, with their attack and defense among the worst in the league.
The off-season has seen them actively recruit for players more so than most other clubs and with no less than seven new faces taking the field against the Rabbitohs in their round one opener in Perth, the team will have a distinctly different feel to it this year.
The new faces
Blake Green’s arrival in Auckland could yet prove the catalyst for the Warriors’ first chance at finals football since 2011. The veteran playmaker was recruited after being released from the Sea Eagles during the off-season, and his experience, agility and calmness under pressure are key components in releasing the pressure from star halfback Shaun Johnson. This has already shown in pre-season games, as the two have combined to set tries up for their talented backs, playing in tandem rather than on opposite sides of the field. The 31-year-old has played over 200 games and will be a more consistent replacement for the Kieran Foran experiment from last season. His partnership with Johnson could be telling.
New Zealand International captain Adam Blair returns home and will provide some much-needed power up front to replace the likes of Jacob Lillyman and Ryan Hoffman. His heavy-work rate should prove to be a real positive. He is joined by his fellow internationals in utilities Gerard Beale and Peta Hiku, and second-rower Tohu Harris, who was part of the premiership-winning Storm squad last year. He comes in as a replacement for Ben Matulino.
Signings: Gerard Beale (Cronulla Sharks, 2020), Adam Blair (Brisbane Broncos, 2020), Manaia Cherrington (Cronulla Sharks, 2018), Anthony Gelling (Wigan Warriors, 2018), Blake Green (Manly Sea Eagles, 2020), Tohu Harris (Melbourne Storm, 2021), Peta Hiku (Penrith Panthers, 2020), Karl Lawton (Gold Coast Titans, 2019), Matiu Love-Henry (Brisbane Broncos, 2018), Agnatius Paasi (Gold Coast Titans, 2019), Leivaha Pulu (Gold Coast Titans, 2020), Zac Santo (Canberra Raiders, 2018).
Kieran Foran’s time at the Warriors was only meant to last the year, and in his limited time at the club he certainly underwhelmed, before joining the Bulldogs this season. Blake Green as noted above provides a more stable replacement.
Jacob Lillyman was released from his contract and has linked up with the Knights while fellow veteran Ryan Hoffman has re-joined his former home at the Storm. This leaves Blair with a big task to fill in getting some real go-forward for his side but he is well supported. Ben Matulino departed for the Tigers but is ably covered by Tohu Harris.
Departures: Matthew Allwood (released), Erin Clark (Canberra Raiders), Bureta Faraimo (Hull FC), Kieran Foran (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Charlie Gubb (Canberra Raiders), Ata Hingano (Canberra Raiders), Ryan Hoffman (Melbourne Storm), Jacob Lillyman (Newcastle Knights), Tuimoala Lolohea (Wests Tigers), Ben Matulino (Wests Tigers), Ofahiki Ogden (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Toafofoa Sipley (Manly Sea Eagles), Bodene Thompson (Leigh Centurions), Manu Vatuvei (Salford Red Devils)
|1||Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c)||10||Adam Blair|
|2||David Fuistu’a||11||Isaiah Papali’i|
|3||Peta Hiku||12||Tohu Harris|
|4||Solomone Kata/Blake Ayshford||13||Simon Mannering*|
|6||Blake Green||14||Ligi Sao|
|7||Shaun Johnson||15||Bunty Afoa|
|8||James Gavet||16||Sam Lisone|
|9||Isaac Luke||17||Sam Cook|
* Mannering is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season as recovers from a shoulder injury.
Still only 27-years-old, Johnson continues to be the main attraction at the Warriors and again the burden will be on his shoulders. A serious knee injury hampered his season and indeed the Warriors hopes in 2017 as he forms a massive part of their attacking prowess. He missed six of their last seven games of the regular season which they lost all of and failed to make the try-line no more than three times on each occasion. Overall, he made just the 18 try-assists to go with ten line breaks in his 18 games during the season and he could not have the impact he wanted to. Having Green partner him in the halves will release the pressure from him, just as he did with Daly-Cherry Evans at the Sea Eagles. Early signs in pre-season were promising and will go a long way to determining the Warriors’ season if Johnson can play to his potential.
Having swatted away offers from New Zealand Rugby and re-signing with the Warriors for another four years, the captain has led the way for his teammates in showing his commitment to the club. He was the club’s player of the year last year and for good reason too – averaging over 180 metres per game, crossing over on ten occasions and making 16 line-breaks. He will again form a crucial part at the back and will need to lead the way again.
Not too much needs to be said about Mannering, being the most consistent player in the side and an absolute tackle machine. He averaged 45 tackles per season in 2017, and his total of 994 was second in the whole competition. He also averaged 130 metres per game. With the likes of Blair coming in and being able to organise the defense alongside his higher work rate, Mannering may be required to do less running up the middle this season.
For the first time in a while pre-season hopes are pretty low, so yet again it is up to the Warriors to play to their potential. They have done well in actively recruiting during the off-season and the addition of Green may prove to be a valuable buy.
They needed some decent forward momentum to make up for the loss of Lillyman, Hoffman and Matulino and have picked up Blair and Tohu Harris to cover this, while providing useful utilities in Beale and Hiku. Simon Mannering will always be a strong performer, and Shaun Johnson has yet another fresh start ahead of him.
The new change might do the trick, but they need to be realistic. A club this disjointed isn’t fixed in a day as new CEO Cameron George will attest to, and their inability to score points as well as concede them regularly really hampered them last season.
Finals football might just be on their cusp, but I don’t think this will be the season. Consider it the start of their re-build, where they improve on last year’s dismal effort, and lock in to finish 10th.