Gains: Nathan Friend (Titans).
Losses: Lance Hohaia (St Helens), Brett Seymour (Hull FC), Aaron Heremaia (Hull FC), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), Joel Moon (Salford), Adam Henry (Roosters), Shaun Berrigan (Raiders), Isaac John (Wakefield), James Gavet (Bulldogs), Anthony Gelling (Wigan), Sosaia Feki (Sharks).
Having lit the 2011 finals series alight, all eyes will be on the Warriors once more this season to see if they can repeat the dazzling form that took them all the way to their second NRL grand final. Certainly this once-enigmatic side is no longer considered merely one of great potential and they head into the coming season among a handful of genuine premiership candidates.
That said, there remain a few unknown quantities – none more pressing than the arrival of coach Brian McClennan following predecessor Ivan Cleary’s departure for Penrith in the off-season. Every coach puts their own stamp on a club and a change at the top immediately after such a ground-breaking year is far from ideal when pursuing stability.
Nevertheless, McClennan comes with a good pedigree – having coached both the New Zealand national side and Super League club Leeds Rhinos to silverware in the past – and he is no stranger to the Warriors, having assisted former head coach Daniel Anderson during the club’s last great era from 2001-’03.
He also inherits a side on the rise, with young guns Shaun Johnson and Kevin Locke among the most exciting talents in the Telstra Premiership. Their presence alone is worth the price of admission.
It’s difficult to find too many weaknesses in this Warriors squad. Johnson’s combination with James Maloney in the halves looks to have finally put to bed any lingering hangover from the retirement of club legend Stacey Jones; they have speed to burn out wide as well as the fearsome presence of giant winger Manu Vatuvei; and their forward pack provides a solid blend of no-nonsense go-forward and tremendous skill – particularly with back-rower Feleti Mateo creating so much second-phase play for his little men.
The primary goal of McClennan this season must be to finally find the year-long consistency that has typically been the Warriors’ Achilles heel. Notoriously slow starters, they haven’t finished the regular season in the top four since 2007 and it took two thrilling wins over Wests Tigers and Melbourne to reach last year’s decider.
There is no doubt that this is a seriously talented squad and they’ll be aiming for the upper rungs of the top eight – missing out on semi-finals football in 2012 would be considered a huge disappointment.
How They’ll Play It: The Warriors’ success last season was largely based around relentless second-phase play and speed around the rucks. Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine McClennan moving too far away from this formula in 2012. The Warriors are the most effective, if not prolific, offloading team in the NRL. Last season they produced a total of 328 offloads during the regular season (second only to Penrith) and were the most dangerous side in the competition when it came to taking advantage – scoring 11 tries and producing 21 line-break assists as a result of offloads. Not surprisingly, the Warriors boasted three of the NRL’s top 20 offloaders in 2011 including top-ranked Feleti Mateo who produced a whopping 85 (Manu Vatuvei produced 34 and Simon Mannering 33). Once they have their opposition on the back foot, the Warriors play a direct game with the likes of Johnson, Locke and Maloney constantly scheming through the middle. Watch for this trend to continue in 2012. Notably, the Warriors shifted the ball quickly to the edges less than any other side – just 45 times to the left and 29 to the right (a total of 74 times). This compares to a total of 254 strong shifts from the side they narrowly beat in Week Two of the finals, the Wests Tigers.
Expect HUGE Things From: Nathan Friend. This crafty hooker arrives from the Gold Coast looking to put a horror 2011 behind him in which injury restricted him to just four appearances. The Warriors enjoyed plenty of success with their multiple dummy-half runners last season; however it’s been some time since they have enjoyed the services of a long-term specialist No.9. Friend’s speed off the mark will suit the Warriors’ up-tempo style while his crisp passing can only be an asset.
And remember the name Konrad Hurrell: the 20-year-old centre is touted by many good judges as the next big thing at the Warriors. He’s big (100kg), strong and breaks tackles with ease.
Bonus Points: The Warriors are long-range specialists, having scored 34 tries from beyond the 20-metre line including 17 from halfway (only Canterbury scored more from distance). They also heavily favour their left-edge attack where Manu Vatuvei lurks. The Warriors scored 44 tries on their left side in 2011 compared to just 25 on the right.
However, they are vulnerable in defence against the bomb. Last season they defused just 52 per cent of cross-field bombs, 64 per cent of mid-field bombs and 71 per cent of standard bombs. They’ll have to improve on those numbers or pressure will build during close games.
They’re Going To Really Miss: Lance Hohaia. A veteran of 10 seasons with the Warriors, Hohaia provided wonderful utility value with his ability to play anywhere from hooker and half to fullback and even centre. His speed off the mark and tremendous support play featured heavily during the Warriors’ run to the grand final in 2011 and he was the only player to appear in both of the club’s grand final appearances (having played in the 2002 loss to the Roosters).
It’s Time To Deliver: Krisnan Inu. Immensely talented, Inu remains somewhat of an enigma with his ability to produce both the magical and the woeful. Typically, it was a piece of Inu inspiration that saw the Warriors stun Wests Tigers during the finals, yet his grand final performance was less than memorable with a series of costly errors. The return from injury of Jerome Ropati and the expected ascension of wonder-kid Konrad Hurrell leaves them with good depth out wide; consequently Inu must find much greater consistency if he is to retain his spot in the NRL side.
How’s Their Depth: Very good – particularly considering that their run to the grand final last season came with Ropati out injured and brilliant youngster Glen Fisiiahi unable to fight his way back into the top 17. They also boast tremendous depth in the forwards as more local products continue to fight their way into contention. Among those battling it out for a spot in the pack this year alongside veterans Micheal Luck and Simon Mannering are Ukuma Ta’ai, Elijah Taylor, Jacob Lillyman, Steve Rapira while Kiwi forwards Sam Rapira, Ben Matulino and Russell Packer continue to lay a solid foundation.
Under-20s: Consecutive Toyota Cup premierships is quite an achievement for the Warriors, who continue to develop pathways for the increasing number of emerging young Kiwis to progress to the NRL, and there is no reason to suggest they won’t be in the mix again in 2012.
Despite losing a number of players to the NRL squad – including Konrad Hurrell, Ben Henry, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Carlos Tuimavave and Sio Taukeiaho – the Warriors still boast nine members of last year’s grand final-winning squad with coach John Ackland confident they can continue their good run.
“I think we should have a good team,” he said. “I’m sure other clubs are well placed but I’m confident in the guys we’ve got. We’ve got more guys still here from last year than we did the year before so there is still some experience.
“I think we’ll be okay. I’d say that the junior base at this club is extremely healthy.”
The club has farewelled impressive youngsters Sosaia Feki and Adam Henry this season – the pair joining Cronulla and Sydney Roosters respectively.
The Coach: Brian McClennan was a popular pick as the man to replace Ivan Cleary in 2012 although he has his work cut out for him matching Cleary’s spectacular exit from the club. McClennan has plenty of talent as his disposal so expectations will be high, but his position is in no danger and if he is able to build on what Cleary started he could enjoy a long stint with the Warriors.
Predicted Finish: A young, talented side with plenty of good years ahead, the Warriors’ run to the grand final proved to all across the Tasman that they have what it takes to be serious premiership contenders. We’ll slot them in at 5th place after the 26 weeks of the regular season – after which anything is possible.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Former Titans tackle machine Nathan Friend is underpriced after an injury-hit 2011 and is a great option at hooker.
The dark horse: Toyota Cup star Konrad Hurrell could become a must-have rookie if the explosive centre can break into the first grade side.