The Warriors will hit the quarter century mark this season, celebrating 25 years of playing in the ARL/Super League/NRL competition.
When Dean Bell led the veteran-heavy Warriors out of the tunnel and onto the turf at the newly upgraded Mt Smart Stadium in 1995 most pundits had them winning the competition within five years.
It took them seven years just to make the playoffs and, despite two Grand Finals appearances, it has been 25 years of frustration for fans.
Frustration reached its peak during a five-year span from 2012 to 2017, which happened to be the prime years of franchise playmaker Shaun Johnson. None of that was Johnson’s fault but more poor asset management by the then-front office, which included Dean Bell.
The club would panic-sign potential free agent veterans, thus letting young talent like Leeson Ah Mau and Sio Siua Taukeiaho walk because of the club’s short term focus.
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This mindset changed with the arrival of new management, including league stalwart Brian Smith, and a more professional approach to the salary-cap competition.
The Warriors are now looking for players who provide certain skills to a certain role within the team and not simply over-paying for Player X who flourished in an opponent’s system.
They’re also looking four years down the road in terms of their roster and selecting players who should be peaking over the next four seasons, not back in 2016.
Which is why Shaun Johnson was ultimately let go. There were rumours of his diva attitude (true) and questionable work ethic (possibly true) but this was a salary cap decision first and foremost.
The Warriors management needed to free up long-term cap space to sign others and Johnson’s million dollar cap-hit was a problem this season and following seasons if he re-signed.
So they made it public that the club was not interested in resigning him, probably knowing a mixture of Johnson’s ego and his highlight reel would get the Warriors out of the contract.
Was it done smoothly? Hell no, but letting your franchise player walk is never smooth in any sport.
After 25 years the Warriors are slowly learning how to operate in a salary cap league.
This year of celebration may also be one where the team falls short again of the playoffs, especially if Adam Keighran or Chanel Tevita-Harris don’t excel, but the Warriors have set their four-year plan up perfectly thanks to some actual long term planning.
Kia ora: Leeson Ah Mau (St George), Adam Keighran (Panthers, Taane Milne (Tigers), Lachlan Burr (Bulldogs),
Haere rā: Simon Mannering (retired), Shaun Johnson (Sharks), Mason Lino (Knights), James Gavet (Knights), Anthony Gelling (Widnes), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Raiders)
Incumbent: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Challengers: Peta Hiku, Hayze Perham
Everything turned to gold last season for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as he signed a new multi-year deal with the Warriors and went on to become the MVP of the league thanks to his 4,000+ run metres, averaging out to nearly 180 metres a game. Can he win the Dally M again? Well, end-of-year knee surgery which ruled him out of the Kiwis could slow him early on in the season.Embed from Getty Images
Peta Hiku will remain the backup to RTS and is Stephen Kearney’s Mr Fix-it for the Warriors backline. Hayze Perham is the club’s brightest prospect and will look to grow his game in the lower grades this season. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was down the depth chart but now has a chance to be the starting fullback in Canberra after being released this month.
Incumbents: David Fusitua, Ken Maumalo
Challengers: Gerard Beale, Peta Hiku
David Fusitua had a breakout season in the NRL last year, scoring 23 tries to finish as the competition’s top try scorer. The Fus will look to push past 20+ tries this season, especially with Tohu Harris and Peta Hiku joining him on the right edge again.
Under pressure going into the season to hold down his spot, Ken Maumalo had a monumental 2018 season for the Warriors. He finally figured out his role in the team, acting as the fullback when Tuivasa-Sheck went up into the line and as a secondary forward on kick returns. Big Ken averaged over 150 running metres last season and could up his try total from five in 2018 if the Warriors can get a centre who passes him the damn ball.
Gerard Beale and Peta Hiku add quality depth to the position.
Incumbents: Peta Hiku, Solomone Kata
Challengers: Gerard Beale, Blake Ashyford, Taane Milne
While most of the media will focus on the halfback situation at the Warriors, most fans will be interested in whether Solomone Kata has learnt to pass or Stephen Kearney sees Gerard Beale is the better option at left centre. While Fusitua was finishing off a number of red zone (10 metres from the tryline) visits, the other edge was not capitalising as much due to Kata trying to push his way over on the last tackle. Watching at Mt Smart Stadium, it was frustrating watching Ken Maumalo position himself perfectly only to be left standing there or receive a late pass from Kata with no room to move. Kata’s poor defensive reads are another issue that could cost the Warriors in a crucial game.
Peta Hiku also makes poor defensive plays but those can be overlooked due to his chemistry with Tohu Harris and David Fusitua (plus Harris and Fusitua are strong defenders). The trio established themselves as the best attacking edge in the game, consistently overwhelming defenders and gaining metres at will. Look for that to happen again this season.
The best centre, in terms of a balanced offence/defence output, is Gerard Beale who bounced back from his freakish leg injury with strong performances in the backend of last season. He sits third on the depth chart but should Kata or Hiku make mistakes early on, Beale will be the guy to replace them.
Blake Ayshford had solid seasons in 2016 and 2017 for the Warriors but now finds himself down the depth chart and in the NSW Cup. Could have left for the Superleague last year but appears set to retire once his contract is up and settle in Auckland.
Taane Milne has arrived at Mt Smart to try and restart his career after his contract with Wests was terminated due to a second failed drug test. The 23 year-old has to keep his nose clean (haha) but there is no doubt he’s a skilled player.
Incumbent: Blake Green
Challengers: Peta Hiku, Karl Lawton
Blake Green turned out to be a revelation last season after the journeyman joined the club from Manly. His leadership, on-field coaching and ability to make sure the team followed the game plan allowed Shaun Johnson more time to do his shake-and-bake style of footy. Now with Shaunie buggering off to Cronulla a lot more will rest on the 32 year-old’s shoulders to lead the team around the paddock. There is also a chance that “Kakariki” could be playing at halfback in 2019.Embed from Getty Images
Peta Hiku will act as the emergency standoff in the team as will Karl Lawton who played regularly at standoff for the NSW Cup side. In some good news, Stephen Kearney has already confirmed that Tohu Harris won’t be used in the halves at all.
Challengers: Chanel Tevita-Harris, Adam Keighran, Hayze Perham
In January Stephen Kearney announced the race to replace Shaun Johnson would be competed by three current roster players - Chanel Tevita-Harris, Adam Keighran and Hayze Perham.
If looking for X-factor similar to Shaun Johnson, the player to choose is Chanel Tevita-Harris. His backfoot kick to set up a try for the Junior Kiwis against the Junior Roos last November went viral, showcasing his ad lib skills. But Tevita-Harris is still a very raw prospect who didn’t exactly set the NSW Cup on fire last year when he played 20 games, and you think the Warriors head honchos would rather he gets another season of NSW Cup under his belt before promoting him to the big show. He will need to improve his goal-kicking which was only a mediocre 65% last season.
The original dark horse in this group before Shaun Johnson left was new signing Adam Keighran, who is now emerging as the best possible replacement. The former Panthers prospect made the 2018 NSW Cup Team of the Year (as a centre) and finished top point scorer with 202 points (81 field goals). Penrith fans have posted online that Keighran has a strong left boot, is deceptively quick and an accurate goal kicker who found himself down the depth chart simply due to the halfback talent currently at Penrith. His story somewhat resembles that of another unknown who arrived at the Warriors in 2010 by the name of James Maloney.
Hayze Perham has also been given the opportunity to win the halfback role although Kearney admits the club’s most touted prospect is a major outsider due to the club viewing him more as a fullback than a halfback.
Incumbent: Adam Blair
Challengers: Jazz Tevaga, Isaiah Papali’i, Leivaha Pulu, Lachlan Burr, Ligi Sao
The lock position has evolved under Stephen Kearney, moving from the traditional Michael Luck/Simon Mannering 80-minute role to an extra front-rower in the “middle” (Warriors refer to their forwards as “middle” or “edge” players).
While several players took on this role last season, Adam Blair had the most starts wearing the number 13 jersey. The role suited him as he focused more on tackling and shutting down the middle of the park, which was a challenge for the team against bigger forward packs.
Jazz Tevaga is definitely not a frontrower but the hooker/lock is an effective man in the middle with his tenacious defending (90.4% tackle efficiency) and ability to play the full 80-minutes. His dummyhalf running (average of 85 metres a game in 2018) also provides assistance to the hooker throughout the game.
Isaiah Papali’i is expected to spend some time at lock because Stephen Kearney said so in an interview with TVNZ last December, comparing the 20 year-old to former club legend Simon Mannering. "I think he has that type of appetite for work, and what he can provide the team, both with the footy and in defence,” Kearney said.
Lachlan Burr, Leivaha Pulu and Ligi Sao provide size and depth with Sao probably spending his season in the NSW Cup.
Incumbents: Tohu Harris, Isaiah Papali’i
Challengers: Leivaha Pulu, Lachlan Burr
Tohu Harris was among a group of new signings last season who shook off the Warriors curse that afflicted many who starred at other clubs only to struggle at Mt Smart. Of course Tohu Harris is a bonafide star who I found out this Christmas that I’m related to. So that makes him even better. Expect him to reign terror on the edge alongside Peta Hiku and David Fusitua.
Isaiah Papali’i was a surprise starter in round one of last season but against the Bunnies in Perth he looked a savvy veteran (actually he looked like Leivaha Pulu who is a veteran). The 20 year-old seems comfortable in his role, particularly on defence where he does little wrong, and although the plan is to move him to lock expect Papali’i to get most of his starts alongside Harris.
At 6’4 and 110kgs, Leivaha Pulu is of similar build to Harris and has the ability to bust through defenders to set up his centre and wing. A foot injury against St George limited his games in his first season with the Warriors after leaving the Gold Coast Titans, but he should be at the very least a bench option for the club.
Lachlan Burr arrives in Auckland looking to restart his career. The 26 year-old was once touted as a budding superstar for the Bulldogs but has since become a journeyman playing for clubs in Superleague and NSW Cup. After a strong 2018 NSW Cup season where he made the Team of the Year, Burr hopes to earn a position in the Warriors as a multi-positional forward (frontrow/secondrow/lock).
Incumbents: Bunty Afoa, Agnatius Paasi
Challengers: Adam Blair, Leeson Ah Mau, Chris Satae, Lachlan Burr, Leivaha Pulu, Ligi Sao, Sam Lisone
The frontrow was the big question mark heading into the 2018 season and secondrower Bunty Afoa and Gold Coast castoff Agnatius Passi proved to be the answer. Although both undersized for frontrowers, Afoa and Passi simply ran hard, direct lines when hitting the ball up - something the club hadn’t seen in a long time. Although Tuivasa-Sheck was the MVP, Afoa and Passi were the unsung heroes of 2018. Now the question is can they repeat it.
Adam Blair will again play the enforcer role against the big forward packs of South Sydney and Sydney City but he will be helped by former Dragons forward Leeson Ah Mau. Ah Mau, a former junior Warrior, gives the team some added size to the pack which was missing last season.
Chris Satae earned a few games last season after impressing in the NSW Cup and also won himself a new two-year deal. It’s hard to see him jumping into the four prop rotation of Afoa, Passi, Blair and Ah Mau but he provides decent injury cover.
Lachlan Burr, Leivaha Pulu and Ligi Sao also provide depth to the frontrow while former starter Sam Lisone is probably a mid-season release.
Incumbent: Issac Luke
Challengers: Jazz Tevaga, Nathaniel Roache, Karl Lawton
Let’s be honest: Issac Luke was terrible, TERRIBLE, in his first two years at Mt Smart. But he saved his reputation and career with a stellar 2018 season as he helped lead the Warriors around the park. He also smashed James Maloney in the ribcage in the playoffs which was nice too. After earning only a one year-deal with the club, an offer from Newcastle was pulled due to a discovered injury, he’s playing for his career again. News is out there that Parramatta may make an multi-year offer to acquire him before the start of the season, but the Warriors should only agree to it if they find a replacement hooker like Melbourne Storm rake Brandon Smith or Kodi Nikorima from the Brisbane Broncos.Embed from Getty Images
Jazz Tevaga will probably back up Luke in games this season even though Tevaga has made it clear he doesn’t see himself as a hooker. Never do I because Jazz can’t pass the ball very well. Actually he’s pretty bad at passing from dummyhalf. Just tackle people Jazz.
The original plan was for Nathaniel Roache to replace Issac Luke as starting hooker in 2018 and be named the regular starter for the 2019 season. But injuries have delayed Roache’s career including a season-ending injury last pre-season. He is skilled and was fast, the last time we saw him play in 2017, but the Warriors need to be certain that Roache can stay healthy and that is highly questionable right now.
Karl Lawton is another Gold Coast castoff who has grown his game after arriving at the Warriors in round one of last year. A traditional halfback/standoff, Lawton moved into the hooker position after Roache was lost for the season and made an immediate impact by scoring a double in a win against the Wests Tigers. With the utility player becoming a necessity in today’s NRL expect Lawton to be a fixture coming off the bench at hooker or as backline injury cover.
Another utility player is Sam Cook who will spend his season in the NSW Cup as the team’s starting hooker/halfback.
Sneakdefreak’s starting 17 for round one against the Canterbury Bulldogs:
1.Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2. David Fusitua 3. Peta Hiku 4. Gerard Beale 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Blake Green 7. Adam Keighran 8. Agnatius Paasi 9. Issac Luke 10. Adam Blair 11. Tohu Harris 12. Isaiah Papali’i 13. Jazz Tevaga
Bench: 14. Karl Lawton 15. Leeson Ah Mau 16. Bunty Afoa 17. Leivaha Pulu