Saturday 7.30pm (NZ Time)
IT HAS certainly been an emotional pre-season for the Warriors. While the loss of Sonny Fai will never be far from everyone’s minds you get the feeling the Warriors’ squad is looking forward to getting the regular season underway as a way of honouring the young star so tragically taken from this world.
They get to do so by hosting the Eels in Round 1 – a team looking for redemption after a poor 2008 season.
The trials have been good for the Warriors, who went unbeaten through four games. They claimed wins over Melbourne (24-12), North Queensland (32-28), the Auckland Vulcans (28-14) and the Gold Coast Titans (34-12) so you can expect they’ll have removed most of the rust that sticks to teams early in the year.
New signings Joel Moon (five-eighth), Denan Kemp (wing) and Jacob Lillyman (bench) join the Warriors side, as does debutant bench forward Leeson Ah Mau for the opening round.
Halfback Stacey Jones will not return to the NRL just yet – he is still suffering from a calf injury.
Parramatta has a new coach in Daniel Anderson but a similar looking squad to last year, so dramatic improvement will be needed from the Eels’ big guns.
They also won all of their trials, beating Penrith twice (34-12 and 18-10) and the Sydney Roosters (30-24) as they geared up for the year.
The biggest change is the selection of former winger/fullback Jarryd Hayne at five-eighth. While he played reasonably in the trials, can the Origin winger put his stamp on the competition in a crucial playmaking role?
Thankfully for the Eels, their halfback Brett Finch likes to take control of a match. Also, lock Feleti Mateo gives the side another creative option, so there is less pressure on Hayne. How he defends in tighter, though, will be interesting.
Another intriguing selection is reserve prop Tim Mannah, a youngster with plenty of promise, while Eric Grothe also returns to the top grade to play his 100th game for the Eels after being dropped for the majority of last year.
Watch out Warriors: Eels halfback Brett Finch is fully aware he needs to take an even more pivotal role with a ‘rookie’ five-eighth outside him. Finch has been impressive in his few seasons at the Eels, and while the side struggled last season Finch still racked up 24 try assists and 19 line-break assists in his 22 appearances
Under new coach Anderson Finch has grown in knowledge and confidence and is primed for a big season.
Watch out Eels: Warriors captain and prop Steve Price lines up for his 300th NRL game just two days after his 35th birthday. While he might be the competition’s oldest player Price still has what it takes to lead his side to victory with his constant metre-eating. He will be just the eleventh player in first grade history to hit the triple ton – but he was still averaging 123 metres gained a match last season, to be one of the top-performing props in the NRL.
Where it will be won: Composure. The home side is going to be running on plenty of emotion but it’s controlling this emotion that will be the key. The entire squad will want to get off to a winning start at home in memory of Fai. But if they try too hard, or get too emotional, it could result in sloppy football. If the Warriors stick to the game plan they should be good enough to get over the top of the Eels. But if they start making errors the Eels won’t need a second invitation.
The History: Played 24; Warriors 9, Eels 15. The Eels hold the edge in the overall stakes but the Warriors won both matches between the clubs last season. At Mt Smart Stadium there have been 12 battles, with the Warriors leading 7-5.
Conclusion: The home side will rightfully start favourites here. They were great at the back end of last year, while the Eels underperformed in 2008 and haven’t added much to their squad. The Warriors, on the other hand, have impressive young backs Denan Kemp and Joel Moon from Brisbane and Queensland Origin forward Jacob Lillyman added to their squad. If the weather is favourable the Warriors could very well put some points on.
Match officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Reynolds; Video ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm (AEDT)
* Statistics: NRL Stats.