Tuesday, May 21

NZ Warriors 2023 season preview – The 18th Man

17 Teams. 8 spots up for grabs. And as we approach Round 1, every club and fanbase will be giddy with optimism that their team is going to be there at the business end of the season. 

Each year the Warrior hopeful look at their side, and wonder… And only 8 times out of 28 seasons have they been rewarded for their support. 

Let that sink in. 

8 times from 28 attempts has the only side from New Zealand made the cut. 

The Warriors are the club with the longest streak without winning a grand final and are the only side in the NRL along with the Gold Coast Titans to have never won. Some blame the travel as an NZ-based side or the unconscious bias of the Australian referees. Others question the selection of coaches, while some point to a staccato pathways system that plays second fiddle to rugby union. All of these are claimed as reasons for the Warriors poor performances, contributing to their inability to attract quality players, and when they manage to, are forced to pay higher salaries for players that are barely in their prime or well past it. 

And yet, here we are, in 2023. Post Covid. And mildly optimistic of a top 8 finish albeit with no tangible reason other than some personal changes and home games. If the Warriors lose to both the Knights and Roosters in the first two rounds, the hopeful will reach for comparisons to other teams and clubs that have lost the first two games and gone on to make the top 8, rather than looking at the club’s history and acknowledging the inevitable. 

With Sean Metcalfe hamstrung for the first 8 weeks of the season, all eyes fail to the combination of Johnson and Te Marie Martin. 

Based on what we saw of Johnson in the pre-season, the Warriors should be worried. His fluency and vision on attack was abysmal, and the only area of consistency in his kicking game was how dreadful it was. Even Johnson himself must be wondering has he lost it? The man himself claims he’s not worried about what others think so long as he keeps improving. But that’s the problem – he hasn’t kept improving. He’s been going backwards. 

Like you, I’ll never forget watching Johnson turning Melbourne Storm’s Kevin Proctor inside out to deliver a try assist for the ages that contributed to the Warriors making their second NRL grand final appearance in 2011. I’m told by reliable sources that Proctor is still looking for Johnson to this day. 

That rookie year catapulted him into the stratosphere with names like Stacey Jones and Kieran Foran, instantly making him a household name. His speed, step and ability to spot gaps and take on the line were phenomenal, even if his form was generally inconsistent. He was a maverick – at any point capable of delivering a highlights package, but just as likely to deliver a performance to forget. Yet I’ll also never forget his acrimonious departure from the club and his resentment toward the Kiwi’s fanbase when NZ hosted the Rugby League World Cup. 

Over a decade since that memorable debut season, all those qualities that made Johnson such a potent threat have all but eluded him and he now appears to be peddling his experienced game management and calm head under pressure. With all due respect, we haven’t really seen much of either. Cooper Cronk was one of the best game managers we’ve ever seen, and he questions Johnson’s ability to manage games, even in his twilight.

Yet Johnson needs to play the first 8 games of the season without injury and get better each game. If he can’t, then Te Marie Martin is their only answer, otherwise, kiss the Warriors goodbye before Anzac Day. Because we all know what happens then – Warriors play the Storm and usually get spanked, destroying their confidence and belief. 

The worst thing that could happen is if Johnson picks up niggly injuries that force him in and out of the side, and the team can’t build fluidity in their combinations, both in attack and on defence. Given Johnson hasn’t played more than 16 games in a season for the last 5 years, the chances are he’s going to be more of a hindrance to the Warriors development this season, than a fix. 

The other area the Warriors should be concerned about is their front row and defence.

Other than Fonua-Blake (who has gone backwards since his first season with the side) and Bunty Afoa, the Warriors have no genuinely established props. Tom Ale looks the goods, but it’s early days. Converting Mitch Barnett into a prop is a bad idea. The guy is made of steel, but he’s not a battering ram and is simply not built for propping long-term. He was rock solid at lock for the Knights, but coach Webster has shifted captain Harris there, and probably wants ball players in the second row. So, one of two things are going to happen: the Warriors make some decent acquisitions at prop, and Harris can move to the edge allowing Barnett to take up his rightful position at lock. Or Barnett will become another Murdoh-Massila and be converted into a position he’s not suited to and be gone from the club within two seasons. 

The Warriors used to boast depth at prop. It seems some coaches have assumed the game will be faster and the big men less required than previously. While the game has picked up pace, the big men are still making metres and setting the platform for the playmakers. And right now, the Warriors have zero depth in that position. They need to make some purchases or upskill some younger talent – fast. 

Last season the Warriors boasted the worst defensive record, leaking more points than any other side in the NRL. Acquisitions such as Dylan Walker, Marata Niukore, Mitch Barnett and Nicoll Klokstad will go a long way to stemming the tide.  However, many of the points came from having turnstiles on the edges, and not a lot has changed there. If the Warriors fancy themselves as top 8 material, they’ll need to shore up their flanks.  

However you want to look at it, the Warriors hopes this season aren’t looking flash. 

Fox Sports predict the Warriors will finish second last – 16th out of seventeen teams. Even the newly anointed Dolphins are expected to perform better.  But one thing I am probably more pleased to see than anything from the side this season is the rhetoric and images coming from the club showing how much the team are enjoying themselves and building a positive team environment. The culture they are developing this season appears, for all intents and purposes, to be one born out of adversity, gratitude and enjoyment of each other and the game. If this is accurate, and the team plays to their best and never gives up on each other, then I for one will be happy, regardless of where they finish.