New Zealand Warriors season preview
They have self-destructed in spectacular fashion over the last five years to fall short of playing finals footy, yet the Warriors will start 2017 facing expectations as high as ever.
With Kieran Foran in town to compliment an already talented roster, the recipe at the Warriors looks a tasty one, but it remains to be seen if the club will finally feast beyond Round 26.
With three-consecutive games on New Zealand soil to open their season, the Warriors have a good opportunity to build some early confidence, and if they can achieve that then the sky is the limit for this team.
Gains and losses
Gains: Kieran Foran (Eels)
Losses: Raymond Faitala-Mariner (Bulldogs), Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Shaun Lane (Sea Eagles), Jonathan Wright (Sea Eagles), Henare Wells (Burleigh)
What we know
The Warriors started the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership season with three-straight losses and finished it with four losses on the trot, but in between that they performed fairly well, winning 10 of 17. That leaves no question surrounding the areas the club needs to improve on in 2017, and historically those early and late season struggles have been the reason they have missed the top eight. They also leaked more points last year (601) than any team bar the Knights (800) and Wests Tigers (607), and if their defence doesn't improve drastically then they can expect to fall well short of the competition's best teams once again.
This year, based on talent, the Warriors have arguably the best spine in the competition in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke and Foran. Not only are they quality players individually, but they have all previously combined as part of the Kiwis and experienced plenty of success. But the New Zealand club also have a front-row group which is lacking in experience, and beyond veterans Ben Matulino and Jacob Lillyman not a single Warriors prop has played more than 40 first-grade games.
 Telstra Premiership: Shaun Johnson
Try Assists, Tackle Breaks, Tries, Total Kicks.
Prop Toafofoa Sipley (two games) got a taste of NRL last year, and is likely to be the next cab off the rank if injuries strike the club’s propping core, while despite being just 18, fellow front-rower Isaiah Papalii is being fast-tracked and could be a chance of spending some time in the top grade. Playmaker Ata Hingano looks set to add to his two first-grade games played last year, as the likely No.6 until Foran’s planned return in Round 3. Utility Erin Clark stood out in the trials with a couple of solid performances at hooker, but has plenty of competition for a spot at dummy-half in the way of Luke, Nathaniel Roache and Jazz Tevaga.
Given the fact that veteran five-eighth Thomas Leuluai has been replaced by Foran, the Warriors have lost nothing in the halves, while none of the club’s other departures at the end of last year were frontline NRL players. Depth in the front row remains an issue, and it will be up to Sam Lisone and Albert Vete in particular to go to another level this year and ensure it isn’t an issue for the Warriors. The back-row is well covered, while in the backline the club has an embarrassment of riches right now.
Former captain Simon Mannering ($550,000) had the seventh-highest overall average points per match in Fantasy last year and there is no indication that his minutes will be reduced this season. Star playmaker Shaun Johnson scored more total points than any other half in 2016, but at $484,000 he is also the third most expensive player in his position. There could be some money to be made on Hingano ($143,00) if he starts at five-eighth for the first two games and can earn a place on the bench beyond Round 3.
The Warriors should have made the finals last year given where they were in Round 23. Their squad is better in 2017, but the club’s hopes of returning to the post-season for the first time since 2011 will depend greatly on how well they handle the first and last month of the regular season. They also need their middle forwards to give them more than last year, when they were too often steamrolled out of games, further exposing their defensive deficiencies. The Kiwi outfit should be good enough to finish somewhere in the back part of the top eight this year.