By Sneakdefreak

This week the Warriors begin their pre-season campaign in Rotorua against the defending champions, and current dynasty in all of Australasian sport, the Melbourne Storm.

The Storm are who the Warriors have tried to mirror for the past several seasons, with the Mt Smart club hiring everything Storm-related from former players to former coaches in an attempt to become the next NRL powerhouse.

This has led to promise after promise and failure after failure. Players like Dane Nielsen, Todd Lawrie and Ryan Hoffman have arrived on big contracts with the notion that they would bring a winning culture and work ethic back to the club only to leave with their tails between their legs. Tohu Harris is the latest (you could count Adam Blair and Blake Green too) but by now the fans have grown weary of the wannabe Storm system.

The Warriors have a lot of flaws but one of the biggest has been their plan of simply trying to mimic other teams (the other club the Warriors copy frequently is the Broncos and with head coach Stephen Kearney, from both Storm and Broncos coaching ranks, on the hot seat, another Broncos coaching disciple, Michael McGuire, is rumoured to be the favoured replacement).

We hear the soundbites of “improving the culture” and “having the right systems in place” but all that is happening is a club feebly hoping for a culture from another team to work magic on them. That mindset never wins in pro sports.

You need to realise what your club, players, coaches and management are good at and build from there. Being the Storm isn’t it. Nor the Broncos. And don’t try to be the default national team because that’s a total disaster.

Can the Warriors make the playoffs? Maybe. But every team has improved their rosters this off-season, especially wooden-spooners Newcastle, so last place is also a possibility heading into the season.

This season will be defined in the first handful of games. The Warriors need to start playing like Warriors and less like a poor man’s Storm or it will be yet another year of disappointment.

Kia ora: Peta Hiku (Warrington), Adam Blair (Broncos), Gerard Beale (Sharks), Tohu Harris (Melbourne Storm), Leivaha Pulu (Titans), Agnatius Paasi (Titans), Blake Green (Manly), Matiu Love-Henry (Broncos)
Ka kite ano: Kieran Foran (Bulldogs), Ben Matulino (Tigers), Jacob Lillyman (Knights), Ryan Hoffman (Melbourne Storm), Toafofoa Sipley (Manly)

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Fullback

Incumbent: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Challengers: Peta Hiku, David Fusitua, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Zac Santo

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will enter the season wearing the number one on his back and the © beside his name on the team sheet. However, he isn’t signed for 2019 and there are many rumours out there from South Sydney to the All Blacks. The longer he leaves this undecided, the more of a distraction it will become. Peta Hiku was signed as an insurance policy should Roger the Dodger head back to Sydney or take his talents to rugby union. A capable player who the Warriors tried to sign to a $3 million deal back in 2014, the club gets him for cheaper as the utility back was homesick. David Fusitua and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad are two other alternatives with Fusitua already having a good amount of NRL experience playing at the back. Zac Santo will be the star fullback for the NSW Cup side.

Wings

Incumbents: David Fusitua, Ken Maumalo
Challengers: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Peta Hiku, Gerard Beale, Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck

The one thing the Warriors are not lacking this year is outside backs. Following strong form for Tonga, David Fusitua will be back on the wing to start the season. He’s the best finisher the Warriors have and should surpass his total of 12 tries from 2017. Big Ken Maumalo looks to be the most in trouble of losing his position. Maumalo had moments last season where it seemed he was going to fulfil his potential but would then revert back to cement hands and slow footwork. There are better players in this squad. Before the arrival of Hiku and Beale, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was favoured to be Maumalo’s replacement. There is still a chance of that and if last season is anything, Charnze showed he has the nous to play wing, centre or fullback. Expect this 2016 NSW Cup Centre of the Year to be in the line up most weeks. Peta Hiku is another strong wing option but will more likely start the season in the centres with Gerard Beale still recovering from his broken ankle. Roger’s brother Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck will make more of an impact on the Warriors’ social media channels than on the field.

Centres

Incumbents: Solomone Kata, Blake Ayshford
Challengers: Gerard Beale, Peta Hiku, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, David Fusitua,

The two incumbents from 2017 could both miss out on a starting spot in 2018. Just when he looked to be evolving as a player in 2016, Solomone Kata was horrendous in 2017 to the point he thought about retiring. Now, there was some family tragedy but the NRL waits for no man and a poor preseason could end Kata’s time at the club. Blake Ayshford had a different 2017 season to Kata, proving to be one of the few consistent players. His defence was solid (87% of tackles made) and his offensive output was quite good with five tries while always attempting to set up his wing (unlike Kata). Should be starting in round one but might have to work his way into the line up again.
Gerard Beale was already penciled in to start at centre but then he snapped his leg at the Rugby League World Cup and is out. Initially it was thought Beale was gone for the season but now they project he might be back to full health around round 12. Peta Hiku will be Beale’s immediate replacement and should do alright as centre is his best position. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and David Fusitua are other worthy challengers to wear #3 or #4 this season. Anthony Gelling is a late off-season signing from Wigan. An above-average player with a sense of humour, Gelling signed as his partner is recovering in Auckland following a nasty car accident. He seems set for NSW Cup duty before looking overseas again in 2019.

Standoff

Incumbent: Ata Hingano
Challengers: Blake Green, Sam Cook, Mason Lino, Peta Hiku

Following the disaster that was Kieran Foran in 2017 (I think he’ll be a disaster at the Bulldogs too) it seemed the Warriors were content with Ata Hingano at standoff. He is combative and quick and showed in the Rugby League World Cup that he can play if the forward pack is moving.
The Warriors instead sign Blake Green from Manly and now a 31 year-old journeyman is to partner Shaun Johnson in the halves. Here’s the career of Green: he was terrible early in his NRL career, went to the SuperLeague and shone, came back and has been pretty good since. However, the problem is he was good in Melbourne and Manly. Heck, I would look good playing next to Cooper Cronk or Daly Cherry-Evans! I fear the Warriors might have signed pre-SuperLeague Blake Green thinking they’re getting Cooper Cronk/Daly Cherry-Evans. Be worried.
Sam Cook has really developed in the NSW Cup and will probably surpass Mason Lino on the Warriors depth chart although both will be playing for a dominant NSW Cup team this season. No first grade.
Peta Hiku will be the emergency halves man this season (like Tui Lolohea was last season).

Halfback

Incumbent: Shaun Johnson
Challengers: Mason Lino, Sam Cook, Ata Hingano, Nathaniel Roache

Shaun Johnson will hold the halfback position but following the disaster that was the Rugby League World Cup (“yous got your way”) it looks like every man and his dog is conceding that Shaun Johnson is what he is: a player who can dominate a game only if the forwards are dominating but can’t be relied upon to rally the troops ala Jonathan Thurston if the trenches are being overrun. Mason Lino, Sam Cook, Ata Hingano, Nathaniel Roache all serve as backups to SJ.

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Lock

Incumbent: Simon Mannering
Challengers: Adam Blair, Agnatius Paasi, Jazz Tevaga, Leivaha Pulu

Simon Mannering excels in the lock position with his all-round skills and should do the same again in 2018. Adam Blair is an option for Kearney, but if Kearney’s use of Blair in the Kiwis is anything to go by it seems Blair is destined to play in a make-shift frontrow. That’s good because, in my opinion, Blair plays his worst when at lock. If the coach was to move Mannering back into the secondrow, former Titans players Agnatius Paasi and Leivaha Pulu would be the next options as both have played the position before. Jazz Tevaga, a hooker, could fill the role coming off the bench.

Secondrow

Incumbents: none
Challengers: Tohu Harris, Bunty Afoa, Leivaha Pulu, Matiu Love-Henry, James Bell

With Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson gone, both secondrow spots will have new inhabitants. Tohu Harris is obviously one starter but who his partner will be is still undecided. The best bet would be Bunty Afoa, a hard-nose player who just runs the ball straight (something the Warriors need more of from their forwards), but the Warriors website has him listed as a prop. Leivaha Pulu, also listed as a prop, could start there too but seems more of a bench option at this moment. The darkhorse could be former Broncos under-20 player Matiu Love-Henry. He was highly touted in Brisbane (the Broncos had to let him go due to salary cap issues) but has arrived in Auckland with little fanfare - which is a good thing for a young player with a point to prove. James Bell is a smaller backrower who did little in his two games for the club last year. NSW Cup for him.

Frontrow

Incumbents: James Gavet, Sam Lisone
Challengers: Adam Blair, Bunty Afoa, Leivaha Pulu, Albert Vete, Isaiah Papali'I, Ligi Sao, Patrick Sipley

Here is the critical weak point in this Warriors squad. If this team is to have any go-forward in 2018 it will need James Gavet to lead the way. His aggressive, smart style of football is able to get the Warriors moving, opening space for Shaun Johnson, and the team will need plenty of it. I’m not the biggest fan of the Adam Blair signing, but if he can replicate Gavet’s aggressive approach it would help the pack immensely. Sam Lisone is another aggressive ball-carrier but needs to work on his defence if he wants a place in this side. Bunty Afoa, Leivaha Pulu, Albert Vete and Ligi Sao are all frontrow/secondrow hybrids and will contend for the two remaining bench spots - Afoa and Pulu are best of this bunch. Isaiah Papali’l and Patrick Sipley are young talent that will spend large chunks of the season in the NSW Cup.

Hooker

Incumbent: Isaac Luke
Challengers: Nathaniel Roache, Manaia Cherrington, Jazz Tevaga, Sam Cook

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Isaac Luke has been terrible in his time at the Warriors and the Warriors know this. Luke is playing for another contract this season but should he struggle in the early rounds Kearney, in desperation of course, will turn it over to the young and now extremely muscular Nathaniel Roache. Roache has bulked up this off-season, my take is that it means he will get game time at lock as well as hooker. Manaia Cherrington has moved around several clubs now and finds himself now at the Warriors. He’s skilled but is relying on either Luke or Roache to fall. Jazz Tevaga has dropped down the depth chart but still has potential - if he can stay healthy. Utility Sam Cook will try his luck at hooker in the pre-season games.

Sneakdefreak’s best 17 for round one:
1 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck © 2.Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 3.Blake Ayshford 4.Peta Hiku 5.David Fusitua 6.Blake Green 7.Shaun Johnson 8.James Gavet 9.Isaac Luke 10.Adam Blair 11.Matiu Love-Henry 12.Tohu Harris 13.Simon Mannering Bench: 14.Nathaniel Roache 15.Sam Lisone 16.Bunty Afoa 17.Leivaha Pulu