Season Preview: New Zealand Warriors

THE jury is out on the Warriors – and only they can ensure a positive verdict.<br><br>Twelve months ago the Kiwi club was rated amongst the premiership favourites and looked top-eight certainties after easily disposing of Parramatta in Round 1 then staging a thrilling comeback to down reigning premiers Manly a week later.<br><br>But their fall from grace thereafter caught everyone by surprise. The Warriors won just one of their eight matches and only five more all season to finish a lowly 14th – the squad losing all form and confidence to become but a shell of what was once an exhilarating attacking unit.<br><br>What’s most baffling is that, despite their woeful 2009 season, the Warriors still boast a side that – on paper at least – can make the top four. Veteran halfback Stacey Jones may have retired (for good) but their backline still features Wade McKinnon, Jerome Ropati, Brent Tate, Lance Hohaia and Manu ‘The Beast’ Vatuvei, while Steve Price, Simon Mannering and Micheal Luck lead the way in the forwards.<br><br>Injuries will be crucial and there is no doubt they need both Tate and Price fit and firing if they are to regain some consistency in their game.<br><br>It will also be interesting to see how the club responds to the dumping of Price as captain for 23-year-old Mannering – a decision that has confused many.<br><br><b>Their Keys To Success…</b> The Warriors have boasted great traits over the past decade – an intimidating forward pack and the ability to produce some brilliant ad-lib rugby league.<br><br>Unfortunately, their style can go wayward all too easily. <br><br>When the Warriors are off they are inevitably guilty of throwing one too many miracle passes and once the confidence wanes, so too does their willingness to go to their strengths.<br><br>The key for coach Ivan Cleary this season is to rediscover a happy medium because once they are on the front foot their classy backline can run rings around any opposition.<br><br>Much will rely on new halfback Brett Seymour – a man that has experienced plenty of off-field dramas but had finally begun to realise his potential with Cronulla over the past two seasons.<br><br><b>Expect Plenty From…</b> Steve Price. No man is more important to the Warriors’ cause than the 300-game veteran.<br><br>As their forward leader he is a machine – constantly pushing towards 200 metres per game and tackling himself to a standstill. In fact, in 2007 – when the Warriors finished fourth – he ran for a phenomenal 4515 metres at an average of 215 per game.<br><br>Unfortunately injury seems to be catching up with the 35-year-old. He played just 17 games for the Warriors in 2008 and 14 last season and there is a growing push by some for Price to quit representative rugby league and focus solely on his club duties.<br><br>No doubt the decision to promote Mannering to the captaincy in 2010 is at least partly related to this.<br><br>The decision clearly devastated Price but with the coming season almost certainly his last, the Warriors will be hoping he goes out with a bang.<br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss…</b> Stacey Jones. The diminutive playmaker may have lost some of the zip he boasted as a youngster but nobody can deny the influence Jones has had on both the Warriors and New Zealand rugby league in general.<br><br>The club will miss his on-field presence and all-round skills.<br><br><b>Time To Stand Up…</b> Jerome Ropati. The versatile back is one of the most naturally talented players in the NRL but his 2009 season was one to forget. Handling errors and a serious lack of involvement caused tension within the camp and he was singled out for criticism by coach Ivan Cleary after botching what would almost certainly have been the match-winning try against St George Illawarra in Round 8.<br><br>That error alone cost the Warriors badly as their efforts to resurrect a season in decline suddenly flew out the window.<br><br>He wasn’t alone in such sins of course, but he can’t afford a repeat performance in 2010.<br><br><b>Coach Watch… </b>Yep, the pressure is on coach Ivan Cleary this season.<br><br>Two years ago he was a star on the rise after guiding the Warriors to an unlikely fourth-place finish in the regular season but they have gradually slipped since, finishing eighth and 14th in 2008 and 2009 respectively.<br><br>The dumping of Price as captain is certainly a huge risk, but coaches live by the sword and die by the sword and Cleary is obviously coming out swinging.<br><br>Should the Warriors return to finals action he will immediately be vindicated – but another failed season could well prove to be Cleary’s last.<br><br><b>They’re All The Better For…</b> The return from injury of Brent Tate. <br><br>Tate’s importance to the Warriors can’t be under-estimated. As a veteran of 141 first grade games, 15 matches for Queensland and 19 games for Australia, he is the man his fellow backs turn to for guidance.<br>And there is, of course, his ability out wide.<br><br>Fast and elusive, he ranks among the game’s top centres and his presence was sorely missed after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Round 3 last year.<br><br><b>Predicted Finish…</b> If they get their act together then anything is possible, but until they win back the respect of their fans and other NRL teams it’s difficult to predict glory in 2010.<br><br>That said, they will surely have learnt plenty of lessons last season and will almost certainly display a better brand of football this time around.<br><br>At the very least they should expect to battle it out on the fringes of the top eight but injury and discipline will determine on which side of the ledger they finish.<br><br><b>Toyota Cup…</b> The under-20s comp was warmly welcomed by the Warriors when it kicked off two years ago – the arena finally providing an opportunity for the club’s junior stocks to compete at an elite level on a weekly basis.<br><br>And although it has taken time for them to adjust to the weekly grind and fortnightly travel, they have responded well with two finals appearances in as many seasons.<br><br>More importantly, the club has high hopes for a number of their rising stars.<br><br>Last year it was exciting speedster Kevin Locke and utility Aaron Heremaia that made the jump up to NRL level on a regular basis – this year five members of the Toyota Cup squad have spent the pre-season training with the big boys. They include Elijah Taylor, Bill Tupou, Siuatonga Likiliki, Alehana Mara and Shaun Johnson. Look out for them.