Can Shaun Johnson become a consistent playmaker for the Warriors this season? Copyright: Renee McKay/NRL Photos. Credit: Renee McKay/NRL Photos Copyright: Renee McKay/NRL Photos
From the time one of the most free-spirited NRL sides in recent memory charged to the 2002 NRL Grand Final, with the merry offloading of star backrower Ali Lauiti'iti an enduring feature of the team's entertaining throw-the-ball-around style, unpredictability has been deeply ingrained into the Warriors' playing style.
It doesn't always come off, but when it does it can be spectacular. It has proved invaluable on plenty of occasions, and has served as kryptonite against more successful but highly structured sides such as Melbourne. The 2014 Warriors boast a similar weapon in Feleti Mateo, whose prodigious offloading was a key component in a Parramatta side that swept into the 2009 decider with furious second-phase play dazzling opponents.
Warriors and New Zealand Test halfback Shaun Johnson is well suited to the improvisational style, which tends to mean he will always be a rocks-or-diamonds type of player, but his consistency is on the improve – if he can maintain the quality on a regular basis like he did for most of the World Cup the Warriors will be a force to be reckoned with in 2014.
2. ...And some calmer heads
Another key component of that 2002 side was the presence of some sensible heads to keep the off-the-cuff play headed in the right direction in the form of legendary Kiwi halfback Stacey Jones, future Warriors club coach (and now Panthers clipboard holder) Ivan Clearly, as well as future Kiwis Test stalwart Lance Hohaia.
The current crop may not quite boast a Jones-level general but skipper and back-rower Simon Mannering, experienced hooker Nathan Friend and underrated playmaker Chad Townsend, who makes his way across the ditch from Cronulla, should be able to provide some measure and control while the more instinctive players keep opponents guessing.
3. The Tomkins factor
English Test fullback Sam Tomkins is the Warriors' marquee signing going into 2014, and he arrives after a starring role in the recent World Cup. His side may have fallen heartbreakingly short of the big one but his team-high seven try assists was a key factor in England performing as well as they did.
There remains a big question mark over how he and Kiwis Test custodian Kevin Locke will fit into the same side – or even if they will – but without doubt the former Wigan Warrior and Super League title winner will add some spark wherever he plays – most likely at fullback, although he has the skills to fill in as a running five-eighth if Shaun Johnson is able to step up to chief playmaking duties.
4. A second-year coach
When Matthew Elliott was appointed at Warriors head coach, replacing sacked former New Zealand Test coach Brian McClennan, he was on a hiding to nothing. Appointed immediately after the conclusion of what was a disastrous end to the 2012 season for the club – in which it lost all of its last eight games – he had little to no say in the 2013 playing roster and was taking over a squad of players who clearly – and at times vocally – would have preferred another coach.
The new season opened true to form for the Warriors, with the side suffering a walloping at the hands of eventual wooden-spooners Parramatta in Round 1, before running last or equal last on the ladder for the opening 12 rounds, winning just two of its opening 10 games.
But the players eventually began buying into whatever it was Elliott was selling because they won five straight mid-season and two of their last three to finish just one win shy of the eighth-placed Cowboys. Having had a full season with the team and chance to welcome some new recruits – including mobile back-rower Jayson Bukuya from the Sharks, as well as Townsend and Tomkins – Elliott could be in a position to start getting the consistent performances out of his charges that fans would be hoping for.
5. An 'easier' draw
When the 2014 draw landed, NRL.com took a close look at which clubs faced theoretically easier or tougher opposition among the nine sides they play twice in the upcoming season compared to 2013. One thing we noticed was the Warriors, who had two games apiece against the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Storm and Sea Eagles in 2013 to be handed the toughest draw of any side last year, now have potentially the smoothest ride of any club in 2014 with just one match against each of those teams.
Of course, not every side that was good or bad in 2013 is guaranteed to be good or bad in 2014 but it seems a safe bet that those four top finishing sides of last season, who each have the majority of their squads intact, will be among the toughest teams again in 2014. And while you still have to beat the best to win the title, an extra one or two competition points at the back end of the season can make a massive difference to how a side's finals campaign plays out in terms of home and away games and potentially earning a week off. By trading matches against Melbourne, Manly, Sydney and Souths for extra meetings against Parramatta, St George Illawarra, North Queensland and Canterbury, the Warriors are arguably well placed to finish with a better springboard into the finals in 2014.