In a bid to reverse their fortunes from previous seasons, the New Zealand Warriors have heavily bolstered their side across the park. Woefully inconsistent in previous seasons, is it enough to get them over the line?
If the Warriors are to cement a spot in the top eight, they will have to get past some of the Telstra Premiership heavyweights, four of which they play twice over the course of the year.
All hope is not lost, however, with the Warriors performing well in key defensive areas that bode well for continued development in 2018.
With their existing roster and their new signings that are aimed at strengthening their side, should they fail to make the eight yet again, Stephen Kearney's head is likely to be on the chopping block.
The Warriors have bolstered their depth in the forwards and outside backs with the signing of eight new faces headed by Kiwi internationals Adam Blair, Tohu Harris, Peta Hiku and Gerard Beale.
Soward's Say: Warriors in 2018
The Warriors play three of their first matches away from home and have been drawn to play last year’s grand finalists Melbourne and North Queensland Cowboys twice, along with Sydney Roosters, Brisbane Broncos and Penrith Panthers.
How the Warriors perform mid-season will be crucial as they face a sequence of six consecutive matches against top eight teams from 2017 – Manly, the North Queensland Cowboys, Cronulla Sharks, Panthers, Broncos and Storm.
The stat that gives you hope
The Warriors had the second-worst defence in the NRL last season, conceding 575 points, but there were areas in which genuine improvement could be seen.
Among the positives for Warriors coach Stephen Kearney was the fact his team ranked fourth for missed tackles per game (29.3), 14th for metres conceded (1611m per game) and first for defusing kicks (74.5 per cent).
In addition, the Warriors were disciplined with and without the ball, making the second least number of errors for the season (220) and conceding the fifth fewest penalties (5.6 per game).
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise:
Simon Mannering ($875,000) is Mr Reliable in NRL Fantasy, with massive tackle counts regularly earning him 60 points a game. Shaun Johnson ($835,000) is an attacking weapon who also led the league for kick metres in 2017 – although that could change after the arrival of fellow playmaker Blake Green ($420,000). Tohu Harris ($615,000), Issac Luke ($600,000) and Solomone Kata ($388,000) are all players with room to improve on their Fantasy scoring this season, while Peta Hiku ($283,000) is the cheapie with the most upside if he holds a spot at centre.
After being appointed to the job at the end of the 2016 season, Stephen Kearney will have his first season in charge of a roster in which he has been largely responsible for shaping.
The recruitment of former Storm trio Blair, Harris and Green, as well as Hiku and Beale, who have all been involved with Kearney at club or Test level, mean he is now the master of his own destiny.
Kearney is contracted until the end of the 2019 season but he will be in the firing line if the Warriors don’t perform well enough this season to end their six-year absence from the finals.
Re-signing captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the priority and he has already been linked to rugby union as well as rival NRL clubs but Kearney and Warriors CEO Cameron George have been working hard to dispel any concerns he has about the club.
Kiwis second-rower Simon Mannering, who is considered the heart and soul of the forward pack, is among 12 other players off contract, including hooker Issac Luke and Scotland international James Bell.
Prop Sam Lisone recently finalised a new deal with the club.
The burning question
Will Blake Green be the steadying influence Shaun Johnson needs to thrive?
Green isn’t a big-name in comparison to Foran, but he has been more than just a handy support for Cooper Cronk at the Storm and Daly Cherry-Evans at the Sea Eagles, while winning the Harry Sunderland Medal as player of the match in the 2013 Super League grand final.
It is hoped his presence will relieve some of the pressure off Johnson and enable him to produce his best.
Nathaniel Roache: The 21-year-old is being groomed as the man to replace Issac Luke at hooker – and not just for the Warriors.
Roache, who was the club’s 2016 rookie of the year, is tipped to vye with Newcastle’s Danny Levi and Melbourne’s Brandon Smith for the Kiwis No.9 jersey.
The player you should follow on social media
When the Warriors signed Anthony Gelling after his return from England for personal reasons, they didn’t just get an experienced centre but a genuine social media star.
With a diploma in television and film production, Gelling has produced a series of light hearted videos about the game for his social media account, including one about his month in limbo before the Warriors offered him a one-year deal.
Jamie Soward says: “Adam Blair has really matured since coming from the Broncos and playing under Wayne Bennett. Can he take some of those leadership qualities over to the Warriors
“Warriors finish 15th.”
Anthony Gelling, Ata Hingano, Blake Ayshford, Blake Green, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Charnze Nicholl-Klokstad, David Fusitu'a, Gerard Beale, Hayze Perham, Junior Pauga, Ken Maumalo, Lewis Soosemea, Mason Lino, Peta Hiku, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Sam Cook, Shaun Johnson, Solomone Kata, Zac Santo, Adam Blair, Agnatius Paasi, Albert Vete, Bunty Afoa, Isaiah Papali'i, Issac Luke, James Bell, James Gavet, Jazz Tevaga, Joseph Vuna, King Vuniyawa, Leivaha Pulu, Ligi Sao, Manaia Cherrington, Matiu Love-Henry, Nathaniel Roache, Patrick Sipley, Sam Lisone, Simon Mannering, Chris Satae, Tohu Harris.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.