Round 1 Preview: Warriors v Eels

Warriors v Eels
Eden Park
Saturday 7.30pm NZ Time (5.30pm AEST)

The Warriors and Eels are by no means mortal enemies but this year the opening round clash between the clubs has some extra oomph thanks to some off-season happenings.

Two Eels left the inner-west of Sydney and headed across the Tasman for the Warriors after they were offered just basic deals to stay blue-and-yellow. The first, Feleti Mateo, made no secret he wanted to stay at the Eels but was forced on. The second, Krisnan Inu, had failed to fully live up to the hype from his early starts as a youngster. Mateo will suit up for his new side against his old in Round 1, no doubt with a point to prove against his old club. But Inu has missed selection.

The next interesting side note comes in the form of the Eels’ new coach. Former Kiwi great Stephen Kearney has taken the reins at the Eels and he would love nothing more than to get his first NRL victory in his home country. But he will have to overcome a determined home side that is still smarting from their early exit from last season’s finals. Despite playing decent football in a close loss to the Titans, the fifth-placed Warriors were bundled out after watching two upsets the following night. Their side has one major surprise, with boom youngster Glen Fisiiahi selected on the wing. He scored 20 tries in 26 matches in their Toyota Cup premiership-winning side last year – but may be better remembered for a costly blooper against Souths mid-2010. After streaking away for what seemed a certain try Fisiiahi slowed and celebrated by kissing his arm and pointing to the heavens before putting the ball down – allowing time for a Souths forward to come from behind and knock the ball free! One thing is for sure: if he gets near the try line in this game he’ll be hitting the turf as soon as possible!

The Eels have a new-look side of their own, with coach Kearney making a statement early. Chris Walker and Ryan Morgan will make their first Eels appearances (Morgan’s NRL debut also) in the centres, and Casey McGuire returns to an Eels jersey as their hooker – after 12 years away! Mitchell Allgood also debuts at prop.

Milestone watch: Eel Luke Burt needs just five points for 1500 in his career and Warriors fullback Lance Hohaia needs just one try to post a half century of four-pointers.

Watch Out Warriors: Two years ago it was the train, last year it was the plane… will we see the ‘Hayne Crane’ lifting the Eels up the ladder this season? Eels fans will be happy as long as it’s not ‘Hayne disdain’ like at times last year when he was below par. Whichever version it is that turns up for the Eels in the No.1 jersey the Warriors will have to respect his influence on the match.

The 2009 Dally M Medal winner led the Eels in all key attacking stats in 2010. He scored 11 tries, had 14 try assists, 17 line-breaks and 17 line-break assists. He also had 125 tackle-breaks and 33 offloads.

Danger Sign: If the Warriors defenders are standing back on their heels waiting for Hayne to do something, they’ll be left with egg on their faces. The trick to defending Hayne is to move up on him as a group, forcing him into decisions quickly. His 39 errors last year show it can be effective to pressure him.

Watch Out Eels: They have to be worried about Mateo. Known as a confidence player who is usually either off the pace or a world-beater, Mateo has every reason to be at his best in this clash. He’ll go to the line on the edges of the ruck with the ability to pass before or after the line, creating all sorts of indecision in the defence. He pumped out 72 offloads last season and 52, 64 and 56 the years before.

Danger Sign: If the Eels aren’t wrapping up the football in the tackle and the Warriors are able to create second phase, they’ll need to prove their new commitment to defence under Kearney is for real. Otherwise, it’s struggle street for them.

Plays To Watch: Look for the Warriors to send the ball left to Manu Vatuvei. Last year they scored 21 tries on the left sideline but just six on the right! Watch Eels half Daniel Mortimer hoist the high ball and chase after it himself like a terrier and watch James Maloney make a few breaks from being one of the best ball support runners in the game.

Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. The Warriors pair of Brett Seymour and James Maloney and the Eels duo of Daniel Mortimer and Jeff Robson have both had their moments over the past two seasons but inconsistency has been a real problem. Of course, they need their forwards to give them a solid platform but the key to this match will be what each pair does with the space they are given.

They cannot afford to play without confidence – tentative steps won’t cut it. Here is a clear chance for both pairs to assert some early season authority, gain some confidence for their team-mates, coaches and also the fans.

The History: Played 28; Warriors 12, Eels 16. The Warriors might be behind in the overall stats but they have won five of the past six clashes between the clubs including both matches last season. The Kiwi-based side outscored the Eels 61-18 in the two games in 2010.

The two teams have never met at Eden Park – but they have met twice before in Round 1, with the Warriors victorious on both occasions. In fact, the Eels have lost the past three Round 1 clashes they have had away from home and lost to the Dragons in Parramatta on opening day last year. The Eels haven’t beaten the Warriors in New Zealand since 2007.

Conclusion: Kearney’s appointment should bring a tougher attitude to the Eels but with so many new faces and a daunting trip across the Tasman it is hard to tip them to upset the Warriors.

With Nathan Hindmarsh leading the way it is certainly possible but the gut feel is the home side will be pumped up to do the nation proud following recent tragic events in Christchurch. The atmosphere at Eden Park should be great and might just be enough to get the Warriors home.

Match officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Henry Perenara; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm (AEST).

* Statistics: NRL Stats.