Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Gains: Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Dane Nielsen (Storm), Todd Lowrie (Storm), Dominique Peyroux (Titans), Harry Siejka (Panthers).
Losses: Lewis Brown (Panthers), Micheal Luck (retired), James Maloney (Roosters), Ukuma Ta’ai (Huddersfield), Toka Likiliki (Knights), Ligi Sao (Sea Eagles), Omar Slaimankhel (Japanese rugby).
It’s remarkable to think that only 12 months ago the Warriors were riding high on the back of their second NRL grand final appearance and looking forward to a bright and dominant future under the reins of new coach Brian McClennan.
A year on and not only is McClennan gone – having fallen on his sword following a season in which the Warriors started slowly and went downhill from there – but much uncertainty surrounds what might await the Kiwi club in 2013.
Having unsuccessfully pursued the signature of Melbourne Storm mentor Craig Bellamy and overlooked popular caretaker coach Tony Iro, it is former Canberra and Penrith coach Matt Elliott who takes over the head coaching role this season.
Taking a ‘fresh-is-best’ approach, Elliott has replaced the vast majority of his support team for the year ahead with Andrew McFadden (assistant) and Carl Jennings (strength and conditioning) joining Ruben Wiki at the Warriors. All three have worked with Elliott in the past and the club will be hoping their familiarity proves to be a bonus.
Their first task will be to address the huge confidence hit the side took during the latter stages of 2012. Seemingly well placed to make their traditional late-season burst, a disastrous 24-19 loss to Newcastle in Round 20 after leading 19-0 – followed a week later by a 24-22 loss to Manly having led 18-0 – broke their resistance and they crumbled to finish 14th with eight losses in a row to finish the year.
The positive for Elliott is that there is no doubt he has a mountain of talent to work with at the Warriors. Halfback Shaun Johnson and fullback Kevin Locke remain two of the most exciting players in the NRL with their raw speed and ability to spark brilliant attacking movements. Powerful centre Konrad Hurrell showed enough last season to suggest he will become a regular in the New Zealand Test team, while Feleti Mateo is their X-factor in the back row.
While tackling machine Micheal Luck and five-eighth James Maloney have departed the club, the Warriors have added some valuable experience this season, with premiership-winning duo Dane Nielsen and Todd Lowrie arriving from Melbourne and playmaker Thomas Leuluai returning to the club after nine years in England. His scrum-base partnership with Johnson will be critical.
As always with the Warriors, there are no guarantees and they will be desperate to shed the inconsistency that has plagued them almost without fail since their inception some 18 years ago; however on their day they are the most exciting side in the competition and capable of going all the way. Can they turn it all around?
How They’ll Play It
The Warriors have often struggled finding that perfect balance between discipline with the football and letting their natural abilities shine but there is no doubt they are at their best playing an up-tempo game with plenty of second-phase play and their little men darting through the middle.
One statistic alone is enough to highlight where they went wrong last season – in 2011 they ranked second in the NRL for offloads with 329 at 13.7 per game on the way to the grand final, yet dropped down to just 226 at 9.4 per game in 2012 (third fewest).
That lack of second-phase play meant that the Warriors went away from their strengths. Expect them to target the rucks again this season with Locke, Johnson, Leuluai and hooker Nathan Friend to run the big men ragged up the middle.
Expect a HUGE Year From
Feleti Mateo. One of the Warriors’ best since arriving at the club in 2011, Mateo has signalled his intention to stake his claim for State of Origin selection this season by changing international eligibility from Tonga to Australia. That’s a huge call given that it is a World Cup year – Mateo was certain to represent the Tongans at the end of the year – but has instead made it clear to new NSW coach Laurie Daley that he is ready and waiting.
That’s good news for the Warriors as they look to put the disasters of last year behind them. Mateo will be looking to work on his defence after some positional lapses in 2012; however with the ball in hand he has long been a destructive force with his power and ability to offload the football. Mateo’s 146 offloads over the past two seasons is the most by any player in the NRL.
The Warriors’ edge defence was in tatters last season and Matt Elliott will have his work cut out for him plugging the leaks. Incredibly, while they conceded 19 tries up the middle, their right edge let in 46 and their left edge a whopping 48 tries in 2012.
However, the problem was more widespread. The Warriors missed more tackles than any side last season with 915 and produced fewer ‘good’ kick-chases than them all too, so their effort areas clearly need a lot of work.
For the record though, Roosters-bound James Maloney was their greatest defensive liability last season with 125 missed tackles (only Parramatta’s Chris Sandow accrued more misses).
The Question Mark
Can Matthew Elliott bring the unity to the Warriors’ unique playing group that so many of his predecessors have failed to? With the exception of Daniel Anderson – who enjoyed three breakthrough seasons at the club between 2002-2004 before falling out with some key figures – and the popular Ivan Cleary, the Warriors have proved somewhat of a cryptic puzzle with Brian McClennan just the latest in a long list that have struggled to crack the code.
Elliott’s coaching results have been mixed. He reached the finals four times in five seasons at Canberra but lost all five finals games the Raiders played. He then guided Penrith to second spot on the NRL ladder in 2010 – their only top-eight finish under his tenure – but again lost both games to exit with a whimper.
Who Needs To Lift?
Manu Vatuvei endured a forgettable 2012 by his high standards, making a whopping 38 errors (third most in the NRL) and struggling to have the same impact as in previous seasons.
Vatuvei famously battled the yips back in 2007 as a crisis of confidence seriously affected his ball-handling and the ghosts of winters past appeared to return at times last season.
The problem for the Warriors is that Vatuvei is hugely important to their on-field success – not only can he be awfully difficult to contain when running at pace, he remains a key member of the club’s leadership group and commands enormous respect from his teammates.
They need him at his destructive best in 2013.
How’s Their Depth
Decent enough. The Warriors were cruelled by a number of lengthy injury lay-offs last season but at full-strength they boast plenty of options. Kevin Locke has Glen Fisiiahi putting him under pressure, while the arrival of Dane Nielsen and return from injury of Jerome Ropati provides plenty of options out wide. Ropati remains an option in the halves as well.
The Warriors also have a number of youngsters coming through the ranks, having been the dominant Toyota Cup club of the past three seasons. Among those joining the NRL squad in 2013 are promising forward John Palavi and versatile back-rower Sio Siua Taukeiaho.
However, they will need to cover for the unavailability of stars Shaun Johnson (elbow) and Nathan Friend (shoulder) over the opening month.
Dream Team Bankers
A total of four Warriors averaged more than 40 points per game last season: Shaun Johnson, Nathan Friend, Simon Mannering and Feleti Mateo – not a bad thought given how poorly the side performed at the back end of the season. All look to be good investments again although we like the reliability of Friend ($327,700) for the sort of cash they all demand.
However, Johnson could see his average skyrocket should the Warriors’ attack hit its straps this season. He averaged 42.68ppg from 22 appearances in 2012.
Keep an eye on recruit Harry Siejka. Time will tell what role he plays in Matt Elliott’s plans but he scored a total of 49 points in his two games for Penrith last season and at just $134,900 he could prove a valuable asset.
The beauty of taking over a club trying to pick up the pieces is that the only way is up. Aside from the fact that the Warriors won’t want to see another coach out the door after just 12 months, it would come as a shock to see the side endure another season as poor as the last. Elliott is safe.
Premiers in both 2010 and 2011, the Warriors enjoyed another strong run in 2012 – finishing the regular season in second before two surprising losses in consecutive weeks saw them quickly bow out of the finals race. Still, it was an impressive year for a side that had undergone massive changes following their 2011 title. In fact, so young were they across the board that 18 members of last year’s squad will be there again in 2013, with 12 months’ experience now under their belts.
Key players to leave the club this season include prop Ligi Sao (Manly), versatile forward Toka Likiliki (Newcastle) and speedster Omar Slaimankhel – who took up a big-money offer to play rugby in Japan – while John Palavi and Sio Siua Taukeiaho have graduated to the Warriors’ NRL squad.
Keep an eye on flyer David Fisitua over the coming months. Fisitua scored 10 tries in 13 games last year but was particularly impressive representing the Junior Kiwis against the Junior Kangaroos when he scored a spectacular 90-metre try in which he out-paced Canberra’s Edrick Lee.
The Warriors will have learnt more from last season’s debacle than they did from their run to the grand final 12 months earlier. More importantly, just because they had lost all confidence by the end of the season doesn’t mean they lacked talent. At their best the Warriors are still among the most lethal sides in the Telstra Premiership and they’ve recruited wisely for the year ahead. They should figure prominently but the competition runs particularly deep in 2013. They could be the side that just misses out – 9th.
*Statistics: NRL Stats