Ben Francis: Will NZ Warriors play playoffs football in 2020?

OPINION: This season looms as the most important for the Warriors… since last season.

They're under the pump to turn things around and while that's been the case for the last decade, things are different this year. 

Club owner Mark Robinson has been very vocal about the Warriors succeeding in 2020, putting everyone at the club on notice. 

Many have already picked the Warriors to compete for the mythical wooden-spoon award in way-too-early season predictions.

But with everyone on notice and nearly half the squad off contract at the end of the season, these Warriors must perform now or fans will likely endure a painful rebuild for years to come.

2019 recap 

Safe to say, last year was memorable for all the wrong reasons, as the season was hampered by injuries, poor play and heinous refereeing decisions.

But mainly, the refereeing decisions…  

Seriously, injuries had a huge impact. The continual toll on players in key positions prevented the Warriors from building and improving their combinations.

At one stage, all their hookers were injured and Gerard Beale was plonked into the halves. Any team would struggle to build consistency under those circumstances. 

But those guys in yellow, pink, orange or whatever colour they wear didn't help.

All these factors saw the Warriors regress on all the good they'd done in 2018, which was tough to watch.  

Another brewing factor was their inability to close out close games, with six losses by less than seven points.

Bright points from the season included consistent performances from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and the emergence of Jazz Tevaga, Ken Maumalo and Chanel Harris-Tavita. 

Biggest question of 2020 - who will wear the No.6 jersey 

The big talking point heading into the 2019 season, following Shaun Johnson's departure, remains an issue for this season. 

Injuries and player debuts saw seven different candidates get a run in the playmaking roles, with the most common pairing of Blake Green and mid-season signing Kodi Nikorima. 

Green is a shoo-in to start, due to his experience and leadership, but after a below-par campaign, many feel Harris-Tavita, 20, should get the nod outside him. 

Chanel Harris-Tavita and Kodi Nikorima.
Chanel Harris-Tavita and Kodi Nikorima. Photo credit: Photosport

The rookie's rise was a highlight of 2019. In his second match, after an injury to Green, he became the lead playmaker and didn't disappoint.

He also played with plenty of heart and his talent was wasted as a bench utility, but with so much riding on this season, would coach Steve Kearney risk leaving a well-paid, experienced playmaker like Nikorima on the bench?

One could start, with the other playing behind new hooker Wade Egan, but when injury-prone Nathaniel Roache and Karl Lawton return, what happens then? 

Player to watch - Tohu Harris 

The edge backrower heads into his third season at the club and has failed to reach the heights he did at the Melbourne Storm - but that's not all his fault.

Harris has battled injury after injury since arriving and will hope for his first injury-free season, after playing just 30 of a possible 49 games over the last two years.

Tohu Harris.
Tohu Harris. Photo credit: Photosport

He's suffered torn meniscus in both knees, while a broken bone in his foot has kept him sidelined since mid-June. 

But the 28-year-old looks healthy for the season opener against the Knights and hopes for a strong third season at the club. 

Harris is a premiership winner, he's one of the best attacking weapons at the club and causes havoc for opposing defences. His presence on the field will cause problems for the defence alone and is key to the Warriors' success. 

Under pressure - Stephen Kearney and his contracted players

Last year, Kearney sounded like a broken record at every press conference. One week, he would praise the team, but the following week, he would unload for a lack of effort or belief. 

As highlighted earlier, the Warriors had rotten luck last year, but that doesn't excuse the fact that they were poor for the most part. 

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

So this year, Kearney must perform - there will be no excuses. Warriors fans have been begging for owners to give a coach time to build a team and Kearney has had plenty, since taking over in 2016. 

The same can be said for the players Kearney has brought in during his tenure. Only nine players remain in the team from Kearney's first season in 2017. 

Nearly half (12) of the 29-man squad are off contract at the end of the season, so another dismal season would see many looking elsewhere for jobs. 

Warriors chief executive Cameron George says the club has money to spend and with some big-name players coming off contract, the current team have even more reason to perform.

Last year, the Warriors missed out on some notable young recruits, including Payne Haas and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui.

Squad 

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c), Bunty Afoa, Leeson Ah Mau, Gerard Beale, Adam Blair, Lachlan Burr, David Fusitu’a, Wayde Egan, Blake Green, Tohu Harris, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Peta Hiku, Adam Keighran, Karl Lawton, Sam Lisone, Ken Maumalo, Taane Milne, Agnatius Passi, Isaiah Papali’i, Hayze Perham, Leivaha Pulu, Nathaniel Roache, Jazz Tevaga

Additions: Adam Pompey, Eliesa Katoa (both upgraded from development contract), Wayde Egan (Panthers)

Losses: Blayke Ayshford (retired), Issac Luke (Dragons), Tevita Satae (Hull), Ligi Sao (Hull)

Best line-up: 1-Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 2-David Fusitu'a, 3-Taane Milne, 4-Peta Hiku, 5-Ken Maumalo, 6-Kodi Nikorima, 7-Blake Green, 8-Agnatius Paasi, 9-Wayde Egan, 10- Leeson Ah Mau, 11-Isaiah Papali'i, 12-Tohu Harris, 13-Jazz Tevaga

Interchange: 14-Chanel Harris-Tavita, 15-Lachlan Burr, 16-Bunty Afoa, 17-Adam Blair 

Other squad members: Hayze Perham, Gerard Beale, Adam Pompey, Patrick Herbert, Josh Curran. Jackson Frei, Eliesa Katoa, Adam Keighran, Karl Lawton, Sam Lisone, Leivaha Pulu, Nathaniel Roache

Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Photo credit: Photosport

Prediction

As much as I'd love to see the Warriors playing finals football again, this team doesn't look capable of finishing inside the top eight. 

This preview has been written over several weeks, so there has been plenty of time to think of reasons for confidence - but there isn't a single compelling reason to think they will make it.

Tuivasa-Sheck and his back-three partners are the best in the league, but they need help from the rest of the team. 

If they can get off to a strong start, like 2018, that momentum might carry them through to the finals. 

The Warriors know 'everyone is against them', as highlighted in George's expletive-laden rant last year during the 'all in' session.

I'd love nothing more than to see the Warriors prove everybody wrong, but at the end of the day, you must be realistic.

Also, in 2018, I predicted they'd miss the playoffs and they made it. Last year, I thought they would make it and they didn't, so maybe this is some reverse psychology. 

Regardless, strap yourself in for another emotional, rollercoaster, nail-biting season, featuring many ups and many downs, and hopefully one that puts the Warriors in good stead moving forward.  

Ben Francis is a Newshub online sports producer.

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz