Ben Francis: Warriors poised for 2019 NRL playoff return

OPINION: For the first time in a long time, the Warriors head into an NRL season having reached the finals the previous year.

The bulk of the squad remains the same, but there are some notable losses, with long-serving veteran Simon Mannering hanging up the boots, while the off-season was rocked with the news of Shaun Johnson's departure.

Despite that, the belief is high as ever for the Warriors, as they look to back up last year's efforts with another run to the finals.

Why the Warriors can succeed

 

Even though the Warriors lost two key players in Mannering and Johnson, the remainder of the squad is unchanged, while the case could be made that they've added extra depth in some positions. 

Fourteen of the 17 players that started against the Panthers in the elimination final will be back for 2019, which bodes well for a club trying to build on the success of last year.

They've brought in New Zealand international Leeson Ah Mau to add size to the pack, while Lachlan Burr will look to bring some energy off the bench.

While other new players won't necessarily make the team title contenders, they will put more pressure on the players in the starting 17 to play well or face getting dropped.

One thing that stood out in 2018 was the fact the Warriors rarely had all their key players fit fat once. At times, Johnson was out and when he returned, Tohu Harris was ruled out and so on.

Warriors hooker Issac Luke.
Warriors hooker Issac Luke. Photo credit: Getty

Everyone except hooker Issac Luke is expected to be fit for their opening-round clash against the Canterbury Bulldogs, but once he returns, coach Stephen Kearney will have a full squad of players to call on.

Another thing visible last year was the improvement in the Warriors fitness. With another offseason under trainer Alex Corvo, the players should be fitter than ever before.

Try picturing the Warriors like building blocks. Each year, they're adding new blocks to make the club better, on and off the field.

Kearney has grown as a coach, which led to a three-year extension and overall, so has the club, so expect that to continue.

Last year, the Warriors had the third best-equal completion percentage (78 percent) and the third-least number of errors (228).

Where the Warriors need to improve most

 

Consistency will be the Warriors biggest battle of 2019, after a wild rollercoaster last year.

After winning their first five games of the season, the Warriors largely went win, loss, win, loss, win-win, loss-loss. You get the picture.  

One week, they arguably had their best game of the season, with a dominant 20-12 home win over the Dragons, only to concede 50 points the following week to the Storm. 

While the Warriors were 7-5 in home games (should have been 8-4, if it wasn't for the poorly refereed the Sharks loss), they finished up with a better away record of 8-4 for the first time in their history.

While it was fantastic to see the Warriors do well on the road, they need to make Mt Smart a fortress once again and an 8-4 home record should be the target.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney
Warriors coach Stephen Kearney. Photo credit: Photosport

If the Warriors want to be considered a real threat, they will have to overcome an arguably tougher schedule in 2019, which sees them travelling for the first four rounds, while they play three away games in the final four rounds - three of those against top eight teams from last year.

One stat that wasn't so good for the Warriors was the missed-tackle count of 869, while the Auckland club were the worst in terms of points scored among the top eight teams.

Squad changes

 

The Warriors have made very few changes to their squad, with only a handful of NRL-capped players joining the squad.

The players replacing Mannering and Johnson won't be the same calibre - for now - but the addition of Ah Mau in the forward pack is massive going forward.

Ins: Leeson Ah Mau (Dragons), Lachlan Burr (Bulldogs), Adam Keighran (Panthers), Taane Milne (free agent), Jackson Frei (Roosters), Patrick Herbert (Dragons)

Outs: Shaun Johnson (Sharks), Albert Vete (Storm), Anthony Gelling (Widnes), Simon Mannering (retired), Zac Santo (released), Mason Lino (Knights), James Gavet (Knights).

Development players: Selestino Ravutaumada, Paul Turner, Eliesa Katoa

Re-signed: Sam Lisone  (2020), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (2022), Hayze Perham (2019), Chris Satae (2022), David Fusitu'a (2023), Ken Maumalo (2022), Issac Luke (2019), Bunty Afoa (2021), Jazz Tevaga (2020).

Player to watch - The new halfback

 

The man who will partner Blake Green in the halves remains a mystery, but the spotlight will be on him for the entire season.

Many names have been thrown out there, but it appears Adam Keighran has beaten out Chanel Harris-Tavita for the role.

While Harris-Tavita would provide a more dynamic and creative approach with a Johnson-esque style of play, Keighran is more of a playmaker and would give the Warriors a more reliable goal-kicking option.

Keighran comes from the Penrith Panthers reserve team, he's a proven kicker and finished last season as the competition's top scorer, with 202 points in 23 games (10 tries, 81 goals).

New Warriors recruit Adam Keighran
New Warriors recruit Adam Keighran. Photo credit: Photosport

Both players are yet to play in the NRL.

The other player to watch is hooker Nathaniel Roache, 22, an exciting prospect, with the ability to cover several positions.

Sadly he missed the end of 2017 and all of 2018 with injury, but he's fully fit and will likely start in round one, with Luke recovering from shoulder surgery.

Looming milestones

 

Adam Blair is one of five players who can join the elite 300-game club in 2019.

The 32-year-old is 11 games away, while Brisbane skipper Darius Boyd (eight), Tigers halfback Benji Marshall (11), North Queensland back-rower Gavin Cooper (16) and Wests Tigers hooker Robbie Farah (18) are all on track.

The Warriors' round 14 fixture against the Gold Coast Titans will be their 600th premiership game.

Kearney is also nine games away coaching 100 NRL matches.

Verdict

 

After the success of last year, the Warriors have the pieces in place to reach the finals again in 2019.

Admittedly, it will be a tough ask this year, with the NRL being deeper than ever before and right now, it's very tough to know exactly how some teams will perform.

They need to play consistently, put together win streaks and try to avoid the win-loss run they endured for most of 2018.

Warriors fitness guru Alex Corvo
Warriors fitness guru Alex Corvo. Photo credit: Photosport

But with most of the same squad and another off-season under Corvo, the Warriors have everything they need to succeed - they just need to deliver the goods on the field.

Plenty of eyes will be on the new halfback, the fact they're young and inexperienced shouldn't factor in too much. Just look at 2011, when a first-year Johnson and a young James Maloney led the Warriors to the Grand Final.

You could argue the current Warriors squad is better than that one all those years ago.

While a title is still the ultimate dream, realistically, the Warriors will likely scrape into the playoffs and might reach the second round, before being bumped out my a more experienced side.

Projected NRL ladder

 

1. Roosters, 2. Rabbitohs, 3. Storm, 4. Sharks, 5. Panthers, 6. Dragons, 7. Warriors, 8. Knights, 9. Broncos, 10. Cowboys, 11. Titans, 12. Raiders, 13. Tigers, 14. Eels, 15. Sea Eagles, 16. Bulldogs

Predicted round one line-up

 

1-Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 2-David Fusitu'a, 3-Pete Hiku, 4-Solomone Kata, 5-Ken Maumalo, Blake Green, 7- Adam Keighran, 8-Sam Lisone, 9-Issac Luke, 10- Agnatius Paasi, 11-Isaiah Papali'i, 12-Tohu Harris, 13- Adam Blair

Interchange: 14-Jazz Tevaga, 15-Leeson Ah Mau, 16-Bunty Afoa, 17- Lachlan Burr

Other squad members: Blake Ayshford, Gerard Beale, Taane Milne, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Karl Lawton, Hayze Perham, Nathaniel Roache, Ligi Sao, Tevita Satae, Levaha Pulu, Patrick Herbert, Jackson Frei

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Ben Francis is a Newshub online sports producer.

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