Has one of the most attacking, eclectic and inconsistent sides in the NRL finally found the formula for premiership success?
The Warriors finished strongly last season, lifting themselves to 11th after being equal last on points as late as Round 12. It was a slow start to Matt Elliott's tenure as head coach but by the end of his first year in charge of the club, players and coach seemed to be starting to gel.
The signs have been furiously positive over the pre-season, insofar as you can read anything into trial form and/or Nines form.
The Warriors launched an attacking blitzkrieg at the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines that seemed to have them on track for the title until the resolute Cowboys found a way to hold them out, and that attacking flair was on show again in a 48-4 demolition of Brisbane in the side's final trial.
One of the best signs – among many positive signs – for the Warriors is the instant combination between Kiwi Test half Shaun Johnson and high-profile recruit, English Test custodian Sam Tomkins. Equally promising is the form of a host of attacking youngsters, many of whom could be set to light up the NRL in 2014.
Gains: Sam Tomkins (Wigan), Jayson Bukuya (Sharks), Chad Townsend (Sharks).
Losses: Elijah Taylor (Panthers), Steve Rapira (Salford Red Devils), Russell Packer (Knights), Todd Lowrie (Broncos), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Roosters), Bill Tupou (Raiders), Pita Godinet (Wakefield).
How They'll Play It
If the early signs are anything to go by, it will be all-out attack from the 2014 Warriors. The shrewd recruitment of underrated former Sharks half Chad Townsend and the major coup, the signature of Tomkins, means Elliott seems to have the perfect blend of flair and control in the key 1-6-7 positions. A pack of robust and mobile forwards will lay the platform; with Johnson playing off the cuff, Townsend (or Thomas Leuluai) keeping things calm and Tomkins chiming in with quality support options, the Warriors have a very dangerous look about them. Throw in half a dozen or more potent outside backs with blistering pace, ball skills and size and strength to boot, and the Warriors will trouble plenty of good teams in 2014.
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Sam Tomkins. The 24-year-old former Man of Steel and Super League premiership winner looks to have taken no time at all to acclimatise to his new surrounds, if the pre-season is anything to go by. He could prove the perfect foil for the enigmatic Johnson. A ball-playing fullback capable of providing attacking options playing up in the line, his presence gives the Warriors a whole other dimension to their attack.
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One of the biggest and most fertile breeding grounds for rugby league or rugby union talent, youngsters from across the ditch increasingly look to be turning to the 13-a-side game. We got a glimpse during the Nines, but if you aren't yet familiar with names like Solomone Kata, Tui Lolohea, David Fusitua and Raymond Faitala-Mariner, keep an eye out – because you soon will be. Slightly more established players Glen Fisiiahi, Konrad Hurrell, Ngani Laumape, Sebastine Ikahihifo and Carlos Tuimavave have provided a template for the new batch of attacking youngsters to follow.
The Question Marks
The biggest question hanging over the Warriors in 2014 could be: what is your 'Plan B'? Yes the Nines is a whole other ball game but the Cowboys showed the way to frustrate the Warriors, and if that translates over to the NRL, the Warriors could struggle to penetrate the best defensive sides, especially in big games. If the Roosters defend the way they did last year, all the attacking flair the Warriors possess may crumble in the face of a perfect sliding defence and un-crackable line.
Positionally the big questions are: what happens to Kevin Locke now that Tomkins seems set to play fullback? Will he be shunted to the wing or the bench, or end up moving on? And can Townsend displace Leuluai in the halves, potentially bumping him to a bench utility role?
Who Needs To Lift?
Those enigmatic attacking players like Johnson and Feleti Mateo need to bring the quality of their worst games somewhere up closer to the quality of their best games. Currently those players can either be 'on' or 'off', and when they're off, the whole team seems to fall apart. It's what sets them aside from the most consistent sides – Cooper Cronk and Daly Cherry-Evans just don't have bad games. Johnson easily topped the NRL for errors last season with 35 (next was Jorge Taufua's 32, and next among playmakers was Johnathan Thurston's 27) while Mateo managed just one try and three try assists in 24 games. These guys need to be at their best every week – not every second or third week – for the Warriors to be a force.
How's Their Depth?
The Warriors bat deep in 2014. The above-mentioned youngsters will put mountains of pressure on the established first-graders, especially in the back row and back five, and the versatility of players like Tomkins and Leuluai give Elliott a few options in key positions.
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Shaun Johnson ($371,700) can put on immense scores on his day if you can put up with the odd sub-20 score, and Nathan Friend's ($357,000) defensive workrate makes him a more consistent option. Konrad Hurrell ($294,300) is also capable of the odd monster score while Sam Tomkins ($280,400) could well turn out to be a great value pickup if his pre-season involvement is anything to go by.
Elliott came into the role under fairly difficult circumstances following the sacking of Brian McClennan in late 2012, with since-departed backrower Elijah Taylor saying the players wanted caretaker Tony Iro for the top job. As mentioned the early signs were poor, and the floundering Warriors struggled badly at the start of Elliott's tenure. There have been far more positive signs since, but another slow start to the season will quickly heap pressure on Elliott's shoulders.
The junior Warriors progressed from a sixth-place finish in 2013 to scrape past the Rabbitohs in the first week of the finals before blowing the Roosters and Bulldogs off the park with successive half-century scores, before going down to the Panthers in the Holden Cup decider. The good news for 2014 is that a few of the young stars who excelled at the Nines – Fusitua, Lolohea and Kata –all still qualify for the NYC so barring a call-up to the top grade for those guys, pencil in the Warriors NYC side for another strong campaign this year.
Can they live up to the hype? The Warriors seem the most likely of 2013's non-finals sides to earn a top-eight berth this year. In fact they could be, along with the Cowboys, the best-placed of any team to break into the top four past Sydney, Souths, Manly and Melbourne. We don't think they'll go quite that far but the top eight looks well within them – fifth or sixth in 2014.
1. Sam Tomkins. 2. Kevin Locke/Glen Fisiiahi. 3. Konrad Hurrell. 4. Dane Nielsen. 5. Manu Vatuvei. 6. Chad Townsend. 7. Shaun Johnson. 8. Ben Matulino. 9. Nathan Friend. 10. Sam Rapira. 11. Simon Mannering. 12. Jason Bukuya. 13. Feleti Mateo. 14. Thomas Leuluai. 15. Jacob Lillyman. 16. Ben Henry. 17. Suaia Matagi.