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Warriors 2021 season preview: Expectations rising despite disruptions

The Warriors were the feelgood story of the 2020 premiership after relocating to Australia to ensure the NRL could resume after the competition was stopped in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With some players opting to return home for family reasons, the depth of the Warriors squad was stretched to the limit and they also had to cope with the shock sacking of coach Stephen Kearney.

Yet the team rallied under interim coach Todd Payten and won fans over in both Australia and New Zealand with the way they adapted to the adversity to fall just short of a place in the finals.

The team is again based on the NSW Central Coast for the start of the 2021 season and have been bolstered by some big-name signings who have given fans hope that the Warriors will be premiership contenders under new coach Nathan Brown.

How Tuivasa-Sheck led from the front in 2020

The 2021 outlook

What's new

The Warriors were the biggest movers in the off-season transfer market in a bid to finally shed the sleeping giant tag under new coach Nathan Brown.

Tongan Test forwards Addin Fonua-Blake and Ben Murdoch-Masila provide strike and menace to their forward pack, which has also been bolstered by the addition of Kane Evans, Bayley Sironen.

In the backline, the Warriors have added experience via centres Euan Aitken and Marcelo Montoya and depth in their halves through playmaker Sean O’Sullivan and on the flank with the recruitment of Fiji rugby union winger Iliesa Ratuva.

Brown keen to keep Harris

The draw 

The Warriors recorded an NRL.com index score of 202 when the 2021 draw was announced in November, ranking them as equal eighth with Parramatta for the toughness of schedule.

Starting the season with back-to-back “home” games at Central Coast Stadium, the Warriors are scheduled to play 10 matches at Mt Smart Stadium and would expect to draw near capacity crowds if they are able to do so.

Away matches against the Raiders, Storm and Roosters in the opening seven rounds are likely to have a significant impact on the Warriors season, which begins against the Titans, who are also touted as big improvers in 2021.

They also play premiers Melbourne and fellow heavyweights Canberra twice and have three five-day turnarounds.

The burning question

Will the Warriors play any home games in New Zealand this season?

The sacrifices that the Warriors players made last year so the NRL competition could resume and continue have been well documented, and they are preparing to do it again.

While the team is scheduled to return home for their Manly at Mt Smart Stadium on April 9, that seems increasingly unlikely due to concerns about borders closures.

Unlike last year, all of the Warriors played have been able to bring their families to Australia, with children enrolled in school or day care on the Central Coast, and they will stay put until there is certainty over travel.

While it would be disastrous for the NRL if the Warriors went home and could not leave New Zealand for away games, rival clubs won’t risk the possibility of being unable to return to Australia.

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Stat that gives you hope

The Warriors used 32 players last season as they were forced to rely on loan deals with rival clubs to field a team each week but the way they coped with the adversity and instability should give them confidence for 2021.

Not only have they made some big name signings but star wingers David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo and Kiwis forward Leeson Ah Mau had limited involvement last season.

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Breakout player to watch

Chanel Harris-Tavita

The Warriors used the back end of last season to fast track the development of Harris-Tavita after deciding to invest in him as their future halfback rather than re-sign veteran Blake Green.

Harris-Tavita had been touted as a future star while coming through the junior ranks and he played the last seven matches in the No.7 jersey after Green was released to Newcastle.

He was named the Warriors rookie of the year and the 21-year-old will now start the 2021 season with the opportunity to cement himself as the club’s long term playmaker.

Contract matters

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will chase his All Blacks dream in 2022 so replacing the fullback superstar is now a priority but the Warriors also need to tie down Tohu Harris, Kodi Nikorima and boom playmaker Paul Turner.

Melbourne utility Jahrome Hughes and St George Illawarra fullback Matt Dufty are among the players linked to the Warriors in place of Tuivasa-Sheck.

Others Warriors players off contract this year include Peta Hiku, Leeson Ah Mau, Jazz Tevaga, Bunty Afoa and Josh Curran.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise

Dual-position recruit Ben Murdoch-Masila ($405k) was superb in the Super League and will be a popular buy if he gets a starting spot in the pack, while hooker Wayde Egan ($441k) could play 80 minutes with a lack of other fit hookers at the club.

Tohu Harris ($807k) was sensational last year, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck ($626k) has the potential to be among the top winger/fullbacks and Chanel Harris-Tavita ($472k) is a little underpriced in the halves.

The quote

“I reckon we should go really good this year given the roster that we have landed. If we get it right in the pre-season and the early on stages of the comp I think we can go very far. Fingers crossed that everyone can stay fit and healthy and we can give the opposition a real run for their money". - Addin Fonua-Blake

Analysing the Warriors' 2021 draw

The good, the bad and the likely

The good: The Warriors should be aiming to finish in the top four with the roster they have this season. Tuivasa-Sheck is one of the best players in the game and he will want to end his NRL career on a high, while team-mates will be keen to ensure a good send-off. With all the hurdles thrown at them last year, the Warriors showed they can adapt to any situation.

The bad: When the Warriors are winning games the hype can get out of hand and the pressure becomes overbearing. When they don’t meet the sometimes lofty expectations the criticism is often fierce. Winning games early will be crucial.

The likely: A place in the finals should be a realistic goal for the Warriors given the side they are building and the uncertainly the players face about when they can go home. The forward pack is strong and the back three is arguably the best in the NRL but there are questions marks over the halfback and hooker roles.

Warriors in 2021

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