NRL Season Review: New Zealand Warriors
It was a season that defied many expectations and brought the Warriors their first finals’ appearance in seven years. However, it was also one of missed opportunities.
Season record: 24 matches, 15 wins, 9 losses
Season placing: 8th (qualified for finals’ series)
Final Result: Eliminated in week one of finals’ series (lost 27-12 to Penrith Panthers)
The Warriors will reflect on their season positively, having reached the NRL finals’ series for the first time since 2011. In doing so, they have built a good foundation and are heading in the right direction for 2019.
While that finals’ appearance was a brief one, they only finished behind the minor premiers the Sydney Roosters and would have a better idea of what it will take to keep up with the better sides next time round. Gone is their previously atrocious away record; in fact they had a better record on the road (8-4) than at home (7-5) this year. This was probably a very pleasing aspect for head coach Stephen Kearney, who would have been under some pressure coming into the season. They also managed to tough out wins they usually would have let go of in seasons gone by, which enabled them to make the eight.
They were right amongst the top four for most the season and never lost over two matches in a row in succession. However, their consistency was lacking and some soft defense in particular would see them leak points at regular intervals during games. It affected their points differential heavily in the end and they needed their forwards to step up at times and it just didn’t happen. But they will take heart from their efforts this season, farewelling club legend Simon Mannering at the end.
The Warriors stood up and got noticed from the get go, defeating the Rabbitohs 32-20 in Perth to start the season. They won their first five matches in a row, and seven of their first ten. To put that into perspective, they won seven matches in total last season.
Probably the most pleasing aspect was their ability to rebound from losses they would have previously just let snowball in a poor run of form. They followed up a controversial last-gasp loss to the Sharks in round 16 with a 36-4 flogging at the hands of the Panthers. With the Broncos hitting their straps, they came into the contest in Brisbane with their backs against the wall and turned in a superb performance, sweeping the Broncos aside 26-6. Just two rounds later they would be in a similar situation after a tough loss to the Storm and a thrashing from an unfancied Titans’ outfit. Again they travelled to Wollongong, where they had won since 1995, and turned over the Dragons by 18-12 in a real grind fest.
Having Blake Green come into the squad made Shaun Johnson feel more assured and together the Warriors’ halves unit looked a lot better a lot more often. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck led by example on and off the field. And the side seemed to take a leaf out of the Warriors of old, leading the league in offloads with 313.
The New Zealand-based side would too often leak points during encounters and would get hammered more than they would have liked as a result. The 50-10 thrashing by the Storm on Anzac Day was against the run of play and exposed some of their defensive frailties. Too often they would concede soft tries on their line, with their forwards found wanting against stronger packs (their missed tackle count was 870, ranking third in the league). Likewise was the case when they travelled away to Penrith and the Gold Coast the fancied side and were humbled. Too often they would fall apart in the second half, barely registering points if any. They needed that to click as their attack wouldn’t usually score enough points to be threatening.
They’ll look back on two matches in particular which could have changed their season. A forward pass in the final play of the game against the Sharks in round 16 was not ruled on and Cronulla stole that match 18-15. And in round 23 against the Bulldogs, another match they would have been expected to win, they were edged out by a Lachlan Lewis field goal in golden point extra time to lose 27-26. Take either one of those games as victories and they would have finished in the top four and perhaps with a different narrative here.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was a true leader in every sense of the word this season, his actions speaking louder than words ever could. It was no surprise he was selected as the Warriors’ player of the year award (the Simon Mannering Medal). Tuivasa-Sheck played 23 games this season, making an average of 167 metres, with 10 try assists and line break assists apiece. He broke the line himself 13 times and his 96 tackle busts understated how dangerous he looked with ball in hand. He led the league in kick return metres with 1,366, always looking energetic as he took hold of the ball. When he wasn’t on the field, and it looked painfully obvious in the elimination final against the Panthers, the Warriors looked a lot flatter.
Having a veteran like Blake Green come across from Manly seemed to make a world of difference to the New Zealand-based side, particularly earlier in the season when they were winning matches at will. Shaun Johnson needed a halves partner to help work outside him and he found it in Green, who could marshall the backs whilst Johnson could set up the plays, relieving the burden he seemed to have been playing with in recent seasons.
Jazz Tevaga and Isaiah Papali’i are young and raw and will get better from time. They played the majority of matches this season, and put in good work rates for an average of 60 minutes per game, making 35 and 27 tackles on average each, respectively. Isaac Luke looked fitter and fresher this season and was a menace through the ruck, keeping oppositions off-guard; his 114 dummy-half runs ranked third in the league. And David Fusitua cemented himself as one of the best finishers in the competition, finishing as the leading try scorer at the end of the regular season with 22 tries and 19 line breaks in addition.
The defense could easily be exposed at times and an average of 35 missed tackles per game, third highest in the league, was probably an accurate representation of that. The backs were as susceptible in this respect, but a majority of the forwards averaged around two missed tackles per match. Peta Hiku could often be found wanting on defense, with his tackling described as “turn-stile” like at times.
Solomone Kata is an imposing presence in the centres but committed 18 errors this season (along with Fusitua who committed 23 himself). He only averaged 95 metres per game and could be prone to lapses. For a man with his size and speed you would expect him to be a real threat to opposing sides. He can definitely afford to do better come next year.
Adam Blair came over from the Broncos with lofty expectations and a lofty pay packet to boot. Now He was expected to bring some leadership to the side given his experience, and to be fair he did that, with the Warriors looking a more settled side on the field. But his performances himself were well below of what he is capable of. Averaging 63 minutes per game, he would make 26 tackles and two missed tackles on average, and run just the 54 metres per match. Ironically, those runs would bring 31 offloads during the year, so if his work rate was higher, he might have been able to have a greater impact.
Shaun Johnson looked great when he had Blake Green alongside him but when the pressure was up there and the times were tough, he could often be found wanting. That couldn’t have been exemplified more than against the Panthers during the elimination final, when he was shown up by James Maloney. Johnson is a veteran now with 162 games behind him, and so often has carried the Warriors side in recent seasons, but really has to stamp his authority as a playmaker going forward.
2019: A brief look ahead
Gains: Leeson Ah Mau (St George Illawarra Dragons) .
Losses: Manaia Cherrington (released), Anthony Gelling (Widnes Vikings), Simon Mannering (retired), Zac Santo (released), Albert Vete (Melbourne Storm).
Their salary cap restraints meant the Warriors have only picked up Leeson Ah Mau from the Dragons but this might be a good buy as he will help serve Agnatius Paasi and James Gavet up front.
With Simon Mannering’s retirement, Jazz Tevaga may well move into the lock position, although he had filled in for Issac Luke at hooker during the season, mainly because of injury to Nathaniel Roache. Alongside Tevaga, Luke is off-contract and would have to accept a reduced salary to stay at the Warriors next season. He has interest from the Knights and Eels so the 31-year-old will have a decision to make. Tuivasa-Sheck, Fusitua and Ken Maumalo are all locked into long-term contracts now which will bring some stability to their backline.
What are your thoughts on the Warrior’s 2018 season? Let us know in the comments below.