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<p>2009 looms as a huge year for New Zealand’s Warriors.</p><p> Previous seasons have seen the Warriors in two successive finals and a superb run to within one week of the grand final last season.</p><p> Popular opinion had them a playmaker short of a premiership 12 months ago but the unexpected return of legendary halfback Stacey Jones completes the puzzle and competition favourites Manly and Melbourne will be looking over their shoulders at the Kiwi outfit as the season approaches.</p><p> In fact, even with the loss of veterans Ruben Wiki, Logan Swann and Wairangi Koopu, the Warriors look stronger than ever this year.</p><p> The arrival of former North Queensland back-rower Jacob Lillyman adds another State of Origin player to their ranks, they’ve bolstered their backline depth through Broncos youngsters Denan Kemp and Joel Moon and, perhaps most importantly at all, the return from injury of fullback Wade McKinnon sees one of their key strike weapons back on the park.</p><p> Last season proved somewhat of a breakthrough season for Manu Vatuvei, Simon Mannering and even the experienced Lance Hohaia – who all found some much-welcome consistency – and they’ll all play a massive role in the Warriors’ title push this season alongside evergreen captain Steve Price.</p><p> The question that remains unanswered is how the club as a whole handles the tragic death of 20-year-old back-rower Sonny Fai, who was swept out to sea in early January.</p><p> <strong>How They’ll Play It</strong></p> The Warriors no longer boast the brutal forward pack that saw them steamroll their way to three consecutive finals appearances between 2001 and 2003 but they remain a dynamic attacking side that is finally learning to play as a unit.</p><p> The influence of captain Steve Price has been dramatic and his young team-mates have improved immeasurably under his influence.</p><p> With his ability to constantly punch through the middle of the field the Warriors remain difficult to contain but it is the likes of Vatuvei, McKinnon, Brent Tate and Jerome Ropati out wide that gives them such an edge with the ball in hand.</p><p> Expect some thrilling tries in 2009.</p><p> <strong>Keep An Eye On</strong></p> Manu Vatuvei. Once maligned for his poor ball handling, he found his confidence last season and proceeded to terrorise opponents with his speed and incredible power.</p><p> Nicknamed ‘The Beast’ (and with good reason), he boasts an incredible try-scoring record of 45 from 68 games for the Warriors and 12 from 19 for the Kiwis.</p><p> <strong>They’ll Really Miss</strong></p> Ruben Wiki. The evergreen forward played a phenomenal 16 seasons in the NRL and is one of just 10 players so far to have reached 300 first grade games.</p><p> Aside from his relentless heavy-hitting, he has played a major role in guiding the Warriors’ crop of young forwards over the past four years. With Wiki now retired, they will need the next crop of stars to step up.</p><p> <strong>It’s Time To Stand Up</strong></p> Sam Rapira. The 21-year-old had a quiet year in 2008 after impressing in his debut season two years earlier, but now is the time to find some consistency.</p><p> The Warriors have lost veteran forwards Ruben Wiki, Logan Swann and Wairangi Koopu and 2009 looms as captain Steve Price’s final year before retirement.</p><p> It’s up to Rapira to prove that he is the man to lead the Warriors’ forward pack into the future.</p><p> <strong>Coach Watch</strong></p> Ivan Cleary is about as safe as they come, barring absolute disaster in 2009.</p><p> The former Warriors fullback – a member of the club’s 2002 grand final side – has put the club back on track since taking over as coach from Tony Kemp three years ago with two finals appearances and a near miss in his first year (after having four competition points stripped at the start of the year for salary cap breaches) on his resume.</p><p> His playing days at the Warriors seem to have helped him understand how best to bridge the vast cultural gap between the local Polynesian players and the high-percentage of Australian players at the club.</p><p> <strong>They’re All The Better For</strong></p> The return of Stacey Jones. Arguably the greatest Kiwi of all time, Jones has been sorely missed since leaving for France three years ago.</p><p> He returned as an assistant coach in 2008 before Cleary persuaded him to return to the playing field this season.</p><p> A classy and experienced playmaker, Jones will provide the direction his younger team-mates have been searching for since his departure.</p><p> A top-four finish will be the Warriors’ realistic goal and a premiership is certainly within their grasp.</p><p> Injuries were cruel last year, robbing them of Wade McKinnon for the entire season and key players Steve Price, Jerome Ropati and Manu Vatuvei for long periods.</p><p> Provided they stay fit, the Warriors have the ammunition to destroy any side on their day.</p><p> <strong>Under-20s</strong></p> Somewhat of an unknown quantity heading into last season’s inaugural Toyota Cup season, the Warriors quickly established themselves as a side to fear and finished the regular season in third place behind eventual grand finalists Canberra and Brisbane.</p><p> Their sheer power and natural flamboyance would suggest another strong showing in 2009, but coach Tony Iro has warned against making such predictions of any side still learning to deal with the demands of such a competition.</p><p> “I’m confident that we’ve got a handy squad but I expect the competition to be a lot tougher this year – and there is always the unknown with this age group, how many boys are going to step up and how many aren’t,” he said.</p><p> “I’m sure every coach has the same issue.</p><p> “We’ve got probably half of our squad coming back so we won’t be lacking for experience, we just need half a dozen of them to be getting close to NRL level to push us up the ladder.”</p><p> Last season it was Russell Packer and Ben Matulino who led the way, subsequently earning NRL selection for their efforts, and Iro said he wouldn’t be surprised if a few more made the jump in 2009. Those expected to lead the way include utility Elijah Taylor and outside backs Thomas Ah Van and Bill Tupou.</p><p> Iro, though, admitted the challenges would be great this season and pointed to the tragic disappearance of Sonny Fai as a major hurdle his players would have to overcome. “It hasn’t been easy,” he said.</p><p> “Without knowing too many of the boys that well, it’s probably the first experience they’ve had of losing family or a close friend. We’re still yet to see what the effects of that are.</p><p> “We still haven’t had any real closure on that issue either but we’re in a fortunate situation that we get to spend a fair bit of time together now and I think that’s helped the boys cope.”</p><p> <strong>New Breed</strong></p> With five NRL games to his name at just 19 years of age, Russell Packer has his sights set on filling the bench position left vacant by the departure of Kiwi legend and 300-gamer Ruben Wiki. And he’s treading the path cleared by fellow youngster and Kiwi international Sam Rapira.</p><p> Keep an eye out for more on Russell Packer when brings you New Breed profiles in the coming weeks.</p>
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