In a nutshell…
The Warriors, the perpetual enigma of the NRL, have missed the finals in each of the four seasons since their unforgettable charge to the 2011 grand final. Ravaged by injuries last year, Andrew McFadden’s side crashed to a 13th-place finish courtesy of eight straight losses to see out the season – after sitting in fourth spot at the end of Round 18. But the arrival of Kiwi superstars Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke, coupled with halfback genius Shaun Johnson’s irrepressible form before breaking his ankle, has launched the Warriors into the realm of 2016 title contenders. If only the Warriors weren’t historically so awful when expectations are placed on them…
Gains: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Sydney Roosters), Issac Luke (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Ligi Sao (Manly Sea Eagles), Blake Ayshford (Cronulla Sharks), Henare Wells (Burleigh Bears), Jeff Robson (Cronulla Sharks), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Melbourne Storm), Ali Lauitiiti (Wakefield)
Losses: Nathan Friend (Gold Coast Titans), Siliva Havili (St George Illawarra Dragons), Nathaniel Peteru (Gold Coast Titans), Dominique Peyroux (St Helens RLFC), Sam Rapira (Huddersfield Giants), Sam Tomkins (Wigan Warriors), Chad Townsend (Cronulla Sharks), Sebastine Ikahihifo (St George Illawarra Dragons), Bradley Abbey (Canterbury Bulldogs), Glen Fisiiahi (rugby union), David Bhana (Newcastle Knights), Ngani Laumape (rugby union)
As well as RTS and Luke, the Warriors have added experience in the shape of Robson, Ayshford and returning club great Lauiti’iti, while Sao – a former Warriors NYC star – is a great forward pick-up and Nicoll-Klokstad a potential star out wide. Encouragingly, the club has shed piles of deadwood.
Tuivasa-Sheck is destined to add a new dimension at fullback, while Manu Vatuvei is the only player guaranteed a three-quarter line berth. Konrad Hurrell, Tuimoala Lolohea, Solomone Kata, Jonathan Wright, Blake Ayshford, Matt Allwood, David Fusitua, Ken Maumalo and Charnze Nicoll-Kolkstad are competing for just three spots. Don’t count NYC stars Semisi Tyrell and Marata Niukore out of 2016 calculations, either. Lolohea will act as RTS’s fullback back-up.
Jeff Robson has been anointed as Shaun Johnson’s halves partner, ahead of versatile pair Lolohea and Thomas Leuluai. Mason Lino is also in the mix after making his NRL debut late last year and Ata Hingano, who debuted at the Nines, is being touted as a long-term first grade half.
Again, plenty of depth. Jacob Lillyman, Ben Matulino, Albert Vete and Sam Lisone appear settled as the four-man prop rotation, but Ligi Sao, Charlie Gubb, Ali Lauiti’iti, Sione Lousi, recent purchase James Gavet and youngsters Bunty Afoa and Toafofoa Sipley are all pushing for a chance. Backrow trio Simon Mannering, Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson – all 80-minute players – are locked in, potentially opening up another front-row bench spot. Raymond Faitala-Mariner and utility Ben Henry are the backrowers next in line.
Plenty of back-up in the dummy-half department, with Leuluai likely to grab a bench spot when he returns from injury, while young guns Erin Clark and Nathaniel Roache are stars of the future capable of playing hooker or in the halves.
Shaun Johnson: Introduced consistency and game-management qualities into his jaw-dropping bag of tricks. His broken ankle ruined the Warriors’ season last year, but he showed no ill effects in his Nines comeback. Johnson will relish having the support of his Kiwi Test spine companions on a weekly basis.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck: Rewrote the record books last year with an unprecedented metres-gained tally, and the ex-Rooster will provide much-needed punch from the back after Sam Tomkins struggled with the physical demands of the NRL. His ball-playing skills improved dramatically as 2015 went on, while his clean-up work at the back is unparalleled.
Issac Luke: Nathan Friend was dependable and tireless, but Luke gives the Warriors a dynamic element they arguably haven’t possessed in an 80-minute hooker since PJ Marsh’s stint in Auckland more than a decade ago. A leader and a game-breaker.
Simon Mannering: After shedding the captaincy duties, we should see the best of Mannering – not that he was subpar last year. Consistently produces massive numbers and embodies many qualities the club has traditionally lacked.
Ben Matulino: The ball-player and the hit-man in the Warriors’ pack, Matulino ranks alongside the likes of Bromwich, Scott, Woods, Graham and Waerea-Hargreaves in the top echelon of the code’s props. Mobile and super-skilful, ‘Big Ben’ picked up the club’s Player of the Year gong in 2012 and ’15, maintaining his performances as the team flaked out big time at back-end of each season.
Under the pump
Jeff Robson: Installed at five-eighth for his calmness and composure, the unfashionable Robson will get short shrift from Warriors fans if he doesn’t steer the ship and allow Johnson’s freewheeling qualities to shine.
Konrad Hurrell: The bulldozing centre appears to have adjusted his attitude to training and being a professional sportsman in general, looking fitter than at any stage of his chequered career. Incredibly, he may still miss out on Round 1 selection in favour of Ayshford. It’s up to the ‘Hurrellcane’ to stay patient and demand a spot week to week – if he can do that, the Warriors might have the next Meninga on their hands.
Ryan Hoffman: Not quite a poisoned chalice, but the captaincy of the fickle Warriors is a big responsibility – one that Hoffman was frothing to take on. There was a push for Johnson or Luke to get the nod, but Hoffman – who was hampered by injury last year and played less than 20 games for just the second time in 12 seasons – is in the hot-seat.
Manu Vatuvei: ‘The Beast’ will always have his critics and it’s no secret he’s not the game’s best defensive winger, but his tryscoring rate – scoring at least 10 tries in an unprecedented 10 consecutive seasons – and his phenomenal yardage gains, along with the aura he carries within the squad, are invaluable. The Warriors need his body to hold together after a long-term shoulder injury ended his 2015 prematurely. Vatuvei has played 20 games just three times in his 12-season career.
Tuimoala Lolohea: Bounced around the Warriors’ team sheet on a weekly basis in 2015 and was consistently one of their best in an impressive rookie year. But if he’s allowed to settle in one spot – likely to be centre or wing at this stage – Tui could really flourish.
Solomone Kata: A nuggetty attacking dynamo and a defensive liability, Kata still finished on the positive side of the ledger in an entertaining rookie campaign, leading the side with 12 tries and 79 tackle breaks. May be shunted to the wing this year, but he could prove to be more effective in that spot after lining up in the centres 23 times in 2015.
Sam Lisone and Albert Vete: Hard to contain with a definite firebrand element about them, Lisone and Vete made an impressive step up to first grade last year after terrorising opponents in the lower tiers. The young bucks need to maintain their enthusiasm and consistency, however, with plenty of competition for spots and the dreaded second-year syndrome looming overhead.
Take your pick – slow-starters, the inconsistent tag, poor record against the competition’s lowest-ranked teams, long-running hoodoos against the likes of the Dragons, poor defensive stats last year and even worse ball control. But the only factor that isn’t inherently fixable is the extra travel the Warriors must undertake. ‘Away’ games in Wellington and Christchurch help, but another trip to Perth negates those somewhat.
2015 Stats Leaders
Tries: Solomone Kata – 12
Try Assists: Shaun Johnson – 11
Line-breaks: Shaun Johnson – 13
Tackle-breaks: Solomone Kata – 79
Average metres: Ben Matulino – 154.8
Average tackles: Simon Mannering – 45.5
Shaun Johnson has had the job since James Maloney left and has kicked 178 goals at a respectable – but not brilliant – 73.86%. Tuimoala Lolohea filled in late last year and slotted 13 from 18 (72.22%), while Issac Luke has booted 133 from 194 (68.56%) in his career.
A straight-shooter, calm, affable, popular with his team and by all accounts a fine coach, Andrew McFadden is arguably under the pump more than any other NRL mentor thanks to the firepower now at his disposal. Talk that he only has six games to avoid going the same way as Matt Elliott and Brian McClennan refuses to go away.
Pressure mounting on coach Andrew McFadden after heavy Warriors loss on the weekend. https://t.co/onEjbhsFIY
— Triple M NRL (@TripleM_NRL) February 22, 2016
There’s few more consistent and experienced campaigners in the premiership, and Ryan Hoffman boasts the hallmarks of an excellent captain – including being one of four ex-Melbourne Storm grand final stars to helm a rival NRL club in 2016.
Hoffman has played nine straight Origins for NSW but is under pressure to retain his spot, while Jacob Lillyman should retain his Queensland jumper with Dylan Napa ruled out of Maroons contention for 12 months. The Warriors could contribute as many as 10 players to the Anzac Test.
The Warriors’ draw is ranked eighth-hardest in the NRL based on last season’s finishing positions. They play the Broncos, Roosters, Storm and Sea Eagles twice, but the Cowboys, Sharks, Bulldogs, Dragons and Rabbitohs only once. Their draw includes home and away clashes with wooden spoon candidates the Tigers, Titans and Knights.
Warriors gifted home boost in NRL draw: Two Sydney clubs will “host” Warriors games in Wellington and Christch… https://t.co/sjCZ2pZZYR
— World ViewsPakistan (@wvpakis) November 27, 2015
In light of their 11-match losing streak in the rivalry, the Warriors’ Round 9 clash with St George Illawarra at Mt Smart shapes as an important one. The Warriors’ last win over the Dragons was way back in 2007.
1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 2. Manu Vatuvei, 3. Konrad Hurrell, 4. Tuimoala Lolohea, 5. Solomone Kata, 6. Jeff Robson, 7. Shaun Johnson, 8. Jacob Lillyman, 9. Issac Luke, 10. Ben Matulino, 11. Bodene Thompson, 12. Ryan Hoffman, 13. Simon Mannering. Int: 14. Thomas Leuluai, 15. Raymond Faitala-Mariner, 16. Albert Vete, 17. Sam Lisone.
One week to go #WarriorNation!
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) February 26, 2016
What the bookies think
Premiers: $8 (equal-second favourites)
Top 4: $2.50
Top 8: $1.50
Wooden spoon: $67
CBS experts’ prediction
Will – 4th
Drew – 4th
Telly – 2nd
Nick – 7th
Andrew – 8th