A preview of the NZ Warriors title hopes for 2024.
With a new year comes a new season and expectations for Warriors fans, and a club that was once viewed as easy beats will now stand on the shoulders of a generational defining season that captured the hearts of a nation, in their quest to achieve the impossible dream – becoming the first NZ based club to win a grand final in the toughest competition in the world. Expected to be wooden spooners or thereabouts in 2023, NZ Warriors unearthed a diamond in the rough in Daly M winning coach Andrew Webster, who nurtured and transformed a team of journeymen and has-beens into career-best form and took the club within an inch of the promised land.
This season, the club is spoiled for choice, now boasting a rock-solid and relatively settled roster, whose shared experience of reaching a preliminary final together will have only left them with a collective thirst for more. They will be complemented by the addition of three world-class recruits in Kurt Capewell, RTS, and Chanel Harris Tevita, who will only add increased value to an already mature and formidable side. As Warriors fans hope and pray for a blessed season where injuries don’t determine their coach’s decisions, let’s dig into the burning questions facing coach Webster as he prepares to win the battle, before the war. And it starts with a pre-season game against the Tigers on 18th February.
Who does Kurt Capewell replace?
You don’t buy a State of Origin representative and grand finalist, only to play them off the bench. While some pundits have labelled Capewell as a weak link in the Broncos side, their players and Coach Andrew Webster know better, so flip a coin as to where Webster plays him. He already has an 80-minute second rower in Jackson Ford, and knowing Capewell can also play 80 provides Webster the temptation to pair them, and ensure continuity on the flanks along with enhanced freedom in his bench rotation. It would also add the luxury of using captain, Tohu Harris, more sparingly to preserve his battered body. The veteran workhorse has been the core of the team’s defence, and whose soft hands have added an extra ball-playing option.
All of which suggests that Capewell takes Marate Nuikore’s position in the second row, allowing powerhouse Nuikore, often used at prop in the back end of games in 2023, to likely slot into an impact role off the pine, similar in style to which he excelled at for the Kiwis. Counter to this is the fact that Nuikore’s partnership with Johnson was solid and he’s devastating with ball in hand. Most opposing halves will be suffering post-traumatic stress from having had to tackle him in 2023. Ford is great, but Nuikore is a beast. Yet with Nuikore, Dylan Walker, and Jazz Tevega, the Warriors would present one of the most intimidating and positionally diverse benches in the competition. If Webster starts Nuikore and Capewell replaces Ford, they will boast arguably the best back row in the entire competition.
Jackson Ford had a breakout season in 2023 and hasn’t put much of a foot wrong, but my pick is he will have to adapt to coming off the bench in 2024. And while there’s a solid backup in Demitric Sifakula. Look out for the highly anticipated debut of what some scribes are already referring to as a generational talent, Selumeila Halasima. Kalani Going hasn’t put a foot wrong yet, either. There’s just headaches for Webster all around. Prediction – Capewell replaces Ford, initially.
How will Chanel Harris-Tevita be used?
I guess travel writing doesn’t pay, so welcome back CHT. The Warriors are well stocked with good halves, which explains why they allowed Ronald Volkman to depart for a year (Since then the poor fella has discovered a season-ending shoulder injury and our hearts go out to him). So, while you can expect that CHT is going to give the incumbents a run for their money, the wider consensus is that he will likely be converted into a Dylan Walker-esque utility and learn his trade in the NSW Cup until the opportunity presents itself. If we’re brutally honest, CHT didn’t exactly set the world on fire as a No. 6, but he was generally solid and possesses the defensive qualities and potential to make for an excellent utility or potential backup hooker.
Barring injuries to two of the three incumbent halves, CHT may remain a development project in the first part of 2024. Having said that, Webster may have other plans – but in Webby we trust. But if the Warriors elect to give Johnson another year in 2025, expect a poaching raid on at least one of the club’s halves. CHT may be harder to encourage across the Tasman, but Metcalfe or Te Marie could possibly depart to the likes of the Panthers or any other multitude of clubs in a market bereft of quality halves – perhaps a player exchange for a decent prop…?
Who does RTS replace at centre?
Jeepers. For the first time in, perhaps ever, the Warriors are flush with depth in the centres. This is both exciting and relevant because all too often, the Warriors have been guilty of being defensively suspect on their flanks. It wasn’t so long ago that the name Rocco Berry struck mediocrity into the hearts of the most fervent Warriors supporters. But after a breakout season, the potential Berry now possesses with another pre-season under Webster, is mouth-watering. Adam Pompey’s continued development, durability and goal-kicking arguably gives him an edge, however, if Johnson and Metcalfe play, it effectively leaves Pompey’s kicking surplus to requirements.
Either way, the Warriors have now developed specialist centres in Berry, Pompey, and Leiatua, with RTS incoming and cover off the bench in Walker – and Nuikore at a pinch. There may be a temptation to continue the Johnson and Berry combination and beef up the left flank which was somewhat lacking punch, during 2023. But you can’t discount the fact that Webster stuck with Pompey every game last season, even when the Mt Smart faithful were calling for his head on the chopping block. It’s a flip of the coin on which way Webster will sway, but I’d wager that he will opt to stick with the Johnson, Berry, and DWZ formation on one side, with Metcalfe (or TMM), RTS, and Montoya on the other, presenting a potent and well-balanced attack, but more importantly, defensively sound edges. The Warriors opponents for the first three rounds don’t contain centres that will strike fear into the hearts of Webster, but don’t be surprised if he gives RTS a chance to find his feet in a new position at a NSW Cup level, before re-exposing him to the rigours of the NRL. In doing so he will reward the incumbents who, all things considered, did a stand-up job in 2023, and buy himself a few games to gauge their form, before making a decision that may provide him with some sleepless nights.
Will too much depth become a problem?
It’s a pretty great problem to have, but at what point will fringe players get frustrated and look for opportunities elsewhere? The Warriors NSW Cup side will be stacked with emerging and seasoned talent pushing for spots in the top team. Consider that the likes of TMM, Bunty Afoa, CHT, Demetric Sefukula, Edward Kosi, Taine Tuapiki, Tom Ale, Kalani Going, Paul Roache, Adam Pompey, and Ali Leiatua could all be jostling for game time in what is already a top team brimming with talent. Wowzers. Despite Leiatua and Going both having only played one game of NRL, neither looked out of place and both looked the goods. Zyon Maiu’u and Jacob Laban will both also be hoping to crack the top squad in 2024. Slade Griffin has been promoted to assistant coach of the first team, so whoever takes the reins of the NSW Cup side, will be sitting pretty with a stable of motivated and talented players. But if opportunities don’t present themselves, expect a few of these names to get itchy feet in the second half of 2024, especially if other clubs come-a-knocking, making overtures of game time.
Can Warriors fans dare to dream?
It’s not a burning question that Webster needs to face, but I’ll take a swing:
If you take a snapshot of the current landscape, they have strong claims. Let me explain.
Any die-hard Broncos fan will know they are kidding themselves if they think their roster has improved. While it hasn’t been completely gutted, they’ve given up Herbie Farnsworth, Tom Flegler, Keenan Paliasia, and their vice-captain, Kurt Capewell, who the Warriors have gained. Yet they’ve replaced these losses with… well… effectively no one of any genuine consequence. Just contract upgrades for others. While Kevin Walters will be backing emerging talent, it doesn’t bode well leaving a gaping hole of experience and leadership in some key defensive positions. So it’s reasonable to assume the Broncos will struggle to improve on last season with such significant losses in talent. Should Payne Haas or Adam Reynolds pick up a long term injury, the Broncos could find themselves in real trouble. Though the same could be said for Johnson and AFB.
Panthers aside, the other major threats presently lie in the Roosters, Manly, Storm, and Bunnies. The Roosters finally found their groove at the end of 2023 and will grow from last season when they were out of sync with a variety of combustible personalities. They’ve recruited well with Spencer Leinu, and in Dominic Young, they possess a great attacking weapon. And consider that the Warriors couldn’t beat them on two occasions last season, despite the Roosters being out of form, with a depleted pack that had been ravaged by suspensions and injuries. In fact, they haven’t beaten them since 2018! The Roosters will be tough to beat.
The Melbourne Storm will have Paps returning at fullback. Enough said. And the Warriors haven’t beaten the Storm in about 6 years, even without him playing. Let that sink in. Manly have gained Luke Brooks but that won’t account for much if Tom Trbojevic’s injuries flare up in the back end of the season. For Manly and the Bunnies, their fullback form and injury status will once again define their season hopes. Remain fit, and they will be dark horses capable of going the distance.
Yet of all these teams, it’s the Warriors who have made the biggest strides in recruitment, depth and leadership. They also grew throughout the 2023 season, which is a good sign. Had it not been for a clanger decision to allow an NFL forward pass in the prelim final against the Broncos, that game could have been a lot closer and may have gone either way. Throw in another pre-season under Webster and the Warriors are the most likely to improve and will currently come into pre-season with no injuries or suspensions. Improving on a preliminary final would result in their first grand final appearance in 13 years.
What could go wrong for the Warriors?
There are 3 areas.
1. We’ve heard about second-season syndrome, in which successful players are unable to rediscover the form of their breakthrough season. And while it’s rare to consider this in a coach or entire club, the Warriors rise was so meteoric. you have to wonder whether they will be able to replicate the magic. It happened to the grand finalists, the Tigers of 2005, Eels of 2022, and the 2011 Warriors. The following seasons for these clubs were unremarkable. However, in the Warriors case, they had a new coach in 2012. Not lifting the trophy will help nurture the desire for unfinished business, and the presence of RTS and Capewell should go a long way to curbing any such second-season effects from occurring.
2. The Warriors are a mature side – maybe too mature. With an average age of 28, they may lack genuine speed, which could leave them vulnerable if opponents can work out how to exploit it. However, most players generally get better with age in the NRL – so it’s an astute approach to have an older team, who are also less likely to be plagued by off-field dramas that often come with youth, combined with overnight success and recognition.
3. The Warriors have strong coverage across the park in almost all positions except one – prop. Addin Fonua Blake provides the go-forward. Particularly against bottom-eight opposition where he can stamp his authority and put the Warriors in good field position to unleash their playmakers. And in case you hadn’t noticed, he’s now capable of scoring the odd pie, himself. But even AFB has struggled against elite packs like the Roosters, Storm, Panthers and Broncos. The Warriors currently have no adequate replacement for him, and fans will now eye 2025 with a little trepidation. Zion Maiu’u and Jacob Laban are untested in the NRL and while Webster may feel the need to promote them this year and see how they go, they’re still 2 years off from becoming anything near seasoned props. Bunty Afoa is one of the few exceptions to not have blossomed under the tutelage of Webster. Given Afoa commands a $400k per season paycheque, the Warriors need to be getting more value for their money. If AFB gets injured for more than a few months, or come finals time, then Afoa is unlikely to be their answer. Neither is the emerging talent who are not yet NRL-seasoned. Here’s hoping another pre-season under Webster will inspire Afoa to greater heights. Because without AFB, the Warriors are going to struggle. Simple as that. If he remains fit, expect the Warriors to go deep, very deep into the finals. And maybe, just maybe, dare we say it… …