New Zealand Warriors season preview
One of the perennial underachievers of the NRL, the Warriors were at it again in 2014, overcoming a disastrous start and the sacking of coach Matt Elliott to put themselves on track for a top-six finish before somehow denying themselves a finals berth despite a roster laden with talent. Will Andrew McFadden be able to channel his squad's ability into consistent results in 2015?
Gains and losses
Gains: Ryan Hoffman (Storm), Matt Allwood (Raiders), Bodene Thompson (Wests Tigers), Jonathan Wright (Sharks), Api Pewhairangi (Wentworthville).
Losses: Kevin Locke (Salford Red Devils), Carlos Tuimavave (Knights), Feleti Mateo (Sea Eagles), Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard (Dragons), Abraham Papalii (Roosters), Jerome Ropati (retired), Jayson Bukuya (Sharks)
Ryan Hoffman is the big off-season signing, and he will hopefully add some consistency to a talented and mobile pack, while their three-quarter line looks well stocked after adding three centres to a promising roster of junior talent.
What we know
There is actually a fair bit of consistency about the Warriors squad this year. Four Nations-winning halfback Shaun Johnson is approaching genuine superstar status and if he brings close to his best footy on a weekly basis the Warriors will be very tough to beat. England fullback Sam Tomkins warmed to his task nicely in 2014 after a slowish start and if he can pick up where he left off will be one of the best genuine attacking fullbacks in the NRL. With Hoffman joining club skipper Simon Mannering in the back row, it should provide some stability around the likes of talented ball-runners such as Ben Henry and Seb Ikahihifo. Blockbusting centre Konrad Hurrell looks like overcoming a wrist injury in time for Round 1 and will again be the centre that other centres fear.
Exactly how Thomas Leuluai fits in. Will he displace Chad Townsend from the five-eighth role or will he share the hooking duties with Nathan Friend? And where does all that leave up-and-comer Tui Lolohea? The Warriors need some consistency in the key playmaking roles to allow Johnson and Tomkins to weave their magic.
With Glen Fisiahii and David Fusitu'a not looking like playing Round 1, it opens the door for one of two gifted youngsters; nuggety winger Solomone Kata has produced two outstanding Auckland Nines campaigns now and is banging on the door of first grade, while towering Ken Maumalo is almost a foot taller and could just as easily come into contention for a bench or back row spot as wing or centre. Speaking of back-rowers, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Sam Lisone and David Bhana are names to look out for.
Room for improvement
The Warriors scored the fifth-most points of any club over 26 Rounds, so it wasn't their ability to get across the stripe that hurt them in 2014. However they leaked more points than any side that finished in the top eight so there is the task for Andrew McFadden. They were actually one of the better teams in terms of discipline; they were sixth-least penalised with the fourth fewest errors so there's a solid platform to build off. Perhaps the rather surprising fact that they registered only the 11th-most tackle breaks and 12th-most offloads suggests they need to do a better job of spinning it wide to their powerful three-quarter players more often and promote a bit more of the second-phase play that they used to be so renowned for, even if it does mean they creep up the error list slightly.
Pretty good, as always given their strong pipeline of junior talent. They have more promising and powerful outside backs and second rowers than they can ever hope to use in a season, with Tui Lolohea to provide back-up to the playmakers. Still, any long-term injury to Johnson or Tomkins would be disastrous for their season hopes.
Shaun Johnson ($485,000) is the club's most expensive player and one of the best halves in NRL Fantasy. He will be just as good – if not better – in 2015. Tackle-busting machine Konrad Hurrell ($358,000) can score huge at centre but is also inconsistent, while Sam Tomkins ($383,000) finished 2014 as one of the best fullbacks in NRL Fantasy. Simon Mannering ($393,000) will again be a consistent option in the back row.
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Andrew McFadden will be boosted by having had a pre-season as head coach at the club for the first time, after being a mid-season addition last year. He acquitted himself well last season, coming in with the side reeling from a 37-6 shellacking at the hands of eventual wooden spooners Cronulla and getting them back on track, despite a lacklustre finish to the season. But with the exception of Ivan Cleary the Warriors coaching chair has been very much a poisoned chalice so while there is no immediate pressure on McFadden beyond the regular week-to-week pressure of being an NRL coach, that could change if he can't draw results from what is a pretty potent roster.
We think the Warriors will probably finish somewhere between second and 15th. But we wouldn't bet on it. Seriously, there is almost no limit to how good or hand bad the Warriors can be, even in consecutive weeks. But most of the ingredients are there for a finals tilt so we can see them just winning enough games to sneak into finals territory, while still managing to lose enough games not to be entrenched in the top four. NRL.com prediction: 8th.