In part 6 of rugby league writer Daniel Boss’ 2014 NRL preview, the chances of the New Zealand Warriors are analysed. Over the past two seasons, the Warriors have missed the finals after competing in the 2011 NRL Grand Final. Anything less than a finals appearance in 2014 will be considered a huge disappointment.
To say that the Warriors’ 2013 NRL campaign was full of ups and downs would be an understatement. They started the season as genuine wooden spoon contenders, having lost 8 of their first 10 games. They then won 7 of their next 8 before winning just two of their remaining 6 games to finish one win outside of the top 8. Unfortunately for Warriors supporters, this unpredictability and high variance of form has been a constant since their inception in 1995. Again, the big question for the Warriors going forward is whether they can find consistently good form.
One area that does not need a lot of fixing for the Warriors is their attack. Despite missing the finals over the past two seasons, their attack in terms of points scored per game has been on par with the average as they have scored 20.7 and 20.6 points per game in 2012 and 2013 respectively. So, this leaves the defensive capability of the Warriors as the Achilles heel. There was improvement last season when compared to the 2012 effort, as they conceded more than 2 points per game less in 2013. Yet, this was still more than 2.5 points over the average points conceded in the NRL in 2013. Warriors coach Matt Elliott will be hoping that his team will be able to have further improvement in their defensive capabilities as this will win them more games and will give them more of a chance to make the finals for the first time since their Grand Final appearance in 2011.
Despite the fact that the Warriors were quite strong in the outside backs in 2013, they still went into the market and purchased the services of English dynamo Sam Tomkins. Tomkins and Kevin Locke will compete for the fullback position at the club. The big story for the Warriors in 2014 is whether Tomkins will be able to compete and dominate in the NRL, as he did in the Super League. If both Tomkins and Locke are somehow unable to play, then the Warriors do have Glen Fisiiahi to cover at the back. On the wings, the Warriors do have the damaging Manu Vatuvei and Ngani Laumape as incumbents from last season. They will face competition from Dominique Peyroux (who will look to cement a starting spot), as well as Locke and Fisiiahi (both who have had experience playing on the wing in the past). I simply can’t see Kevin Locke playing in the NSW Cup, so I think that the Warriors will start Locke and Vatuvei on the wings, provided that Tomkins is indeed playing at fullback. That combination may be the most dynamic back three in the NRL competition. In the centres, there are no additions or losses within the club, which should indicate that last year’s centre combination of Konrad Hurrell and Dane Nielsen should keep their positions. The club does have Ben Henry, Jerome Ropati and Carlos Tuimavave to provide depth in the centres, however I would expect the Warriors to play Henry in the back row as he played his junior football in the forward pack and is more comfortable there.
With a probable new starter at fullback, I think the Warriors would be stupid to have more change in the key positions. Hence, I believe that the Warriors will start with Thomas Leuluai and Shaun Johnson in the halves. Johnson is the most unpredictable and one of the most creative halves in the NRL, while Leuluai provides a steadying influence. In the second half of last season, these two really started to become more comfortable with each other in the halves and the team’s form improved as a result. The Warriors did sign Chad Townsend to provide depth in the halves and can play at either halfback or five-eighth. He also provides a better goal kicking option than anyone else at the club, which could put some pressure on Leuluai to hold his position in the team.
The Warriors have one of the best front row rotations in the NRL, with a representative trio of Sam Rapira, Ben Matulino and Jacob Lillyman. They also possess other good young props in Suaia Matagi and Charlie Gubb. Both should expect to play some first grade sometime during the season, especially with Russell Packer departing the club (and facing jail time to boot). One of the concerns for this team is in the hooker position. The Warriors do have Nathan Friend but he has not been in the same form that saw him star for the Titans a few seasons ago. The only recognised back-up from last season, Pita Godinet, has left the club to play in the Super League. The Warriors may look at moving Leuluai from five-eight to hooker as he has played for New Zealand in that position on many occasions.
This is the area where the Warriors have had the most player turnover. Todd Lowrie, Elijah Taylor and Steve Rapira have all left, while Jayson Bukuya joins the club from Cronulla. In addition to Bukuya, the Warriors have Simon Mannering and Feleti Mateo in the probable starting back row. To provide depth in the back row, the Warriors have Ben Henry and Sebastine Ikahihifo. While I am a huge fan of Bukuya and think that he was one of Cronulla’s most underrated players last season, I don’t think that this will make up for the losses of Lowrie and Taylor. Both players were the glue of the forward pack for the Warriors last season and they will be hard to replace. Lowrie and Taylor were the consistent, hard-working players that the Warriors need to be more consistent and finish in positions on the ladder where their talent suggests that they should finish.
Last season, the Warriors mainly played with two front rowers, a hooker and a utility back on the bench. As Godinet has left the club, I think that the Warriors will either have a bench comprised of two front rowers, a back rower and a utility back/half or a bench comprised of two front rowers, a half and a utility back. I think the former is more likely as the latter will leave the Warriors with too few forwards on the bench.
Matt Elliott enters his second season as head coach of the Warriors. He seemed to have the club going in the right direction before they lost 4 of their last 6 games to finish outside of the top 8 for the second consecutive year. There is plenty of talent in this squad again this season and another finish outside of the top 8 may see Elliott on the hot seat at the end of the 2014 season. He is one of the game’s most unorthodox minds but his out-of-the-box ideas have yet to lead for a finals victory for Elliott. This is probably his last chance to be able to achieve this as a head coach.
- Sam Tomkins
- Kevin Locke
- Dane Nielsen
- Konrad Hurrell
- Manu Vatuvei
- Thomas Leuluai
- Shaun Johnson
- Sam Rapira
- Nathan Friend
- Ben Matulino
- Jayson Bukuya
- Simon Mannering
- Feleti Mateo
- Ben Henry
- Jacob Lillyman
- Suaia Matagi
- Dominique Peyroux
13th. If my predictions were based on potential or strength of squad, I would have the Warriors well in the top 8. However, I just don’t trust that this team will play at or near their potential for every game in 2014. As stated above, the Warriors have lost some key players in the forward pack, most notably Elijah Taylor, which will be hard for them to replace. There also may be some controversy at the club as both Tomkins and Locke cannot play in their preferred position of fullback and the loser of this position battle may not be happy with the lack of opportunity to play in this position.
2014 Ladder Prediction