Ben Francis: Can the NZ Warriors defy odds, shock sporting world?

OPINION: Before coronavirus struck, the NZ Warriors had their backs against the wall… but they're up against it even more now, as their campaign reboots two months later.

Heading into the season as wooden-spoon contenders, the Warriors didn't do themselves any favours with two underwhelming performances against Newcastle Knights and Canberra Raiders, before COVID-19 forced a season suspension. 

Now the NRL is back, but the coming months looms as the most brutal in the club's 26-year history. 

The Warriors have had their fair share of challenges over the years, from the on and off-field dramas of 2004 to the side that struggled with the tragic death of Sonny Fai in '09. 

Nothing compares to what lies ahead for this team. 

They must put their below-par start behind them and focus on the 18 games that lie ahead, as they try to make the playoffs for just the second time since their 2011 Grand Final run. 

2020 so far 

The most memorable aspect of the Warriors season so far came during their season-opener against Newcastle Knights, when Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced the NZ borders would close. 

Not much on the field was worth remembering. A spirited Knights side held the Warriors scoreless, before the Kiwis finally managed a penalty try to break their scoring drought in the final minutes against Canberra Raiders. 

Players react after the defeat to the Newcastle Knights.
Players react after the defeat to the Newcastle Knights. Photo credit: Photosport

Heading into the 2020 campaign, the Warriors were given no chance, but the pandemic put a lid on the criticism for the time being. 

They would often show glimpses of brilliance, but as soon as they hit the 20-metre 'red zone', they seemed like deers in headlights and went flat. 

The rest of their 2020 plans were filled with uncertainty, as they had to wait until the last minute to get approval to fly into Australia. 

Being more upbeat, the emergence of Eliesa Katoa has been a bright point. 

Why the Warriors can bounce back from their rough start

Plenty has been made about the NZ Warriors' sacrifices to take part in the revamped season and while that will be key, it shouldn't be the driving factor for their campaign.

Stephen Kearney and co have made it clear that they want to make fans, but more importantly their families proud of what they're doing. 

Yes, the Warriors are not the only people in the world who have to spend lengthy periods away from their loved ones, but given the current crisis and the continual uncertainty till the moment they boarded the plane, you see why that is a factor. 

The team has effectively been in camp together for four weeks due to their isolation in Tamworth and you'd hope that it would strengthen bonds and relationships between the team. 

The players are saying and doing all the right things and seem bonded by their commitment to remain in Australia until the end of the season, but they must replicate those actions on the field.

Kearney will be continually reminding them of all these factors and if that isn't enough, 12 players off contract so if they're not motivated by doing well for their families, playing well to earn another deal should be getting players along. 

Captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in action against the Canberra Raiders.
Captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in action against the Canberra Raiders. Photo credit: Photosport

The Warriors know it's going to be tough but surely there are enough reasons to spur the team forward and cause a few upsets along the way. 

Also if you have a guy like Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on your team, you're always a chance, right? 

Why it'll be the same old Warriors 

While some teams have arguably benefited during the hiatus on the injury front, it's been the polar opposite for the Warriors. 

Heading into the campaign without props Bunty Afoa and Jackson Frei, the Warriors then lost Leeson Ah Mau - likely for the season - while Jazz Tevaga's stay on the sidelines has been extended. The team is also without back Taane Milner and Adam Keighran, while  Nathaniel Roache is still working his way back to another return.

That leaves them with 26 fit players in Australia - some of whom are uncapped and not ready for NRL football. 

If you had to rank all the players in terms of who you wouldn't want to lose Ah Mau would probably be in everyone's top three as he is the teams most experienced prop and arguably the most consistent behind Tuivasa-Sheck.

Lachlan Burr and rookie Jamayne Taunoa-Brown have been named to start for their first match back against the St George Illawarra Dragons, with Agnatius Paasi - returning from injury himself - the only other specialist prop in the team.

That means the likes of  Adam Blair and Isaia Papalii will fill in at some point against the Dragons. Other players they could use at some point but haven't been named in the 17 include uncapped duo Tom Ale and Adam Tuimarave-Gerrard, Jack Murchie - who only signed from the Raiders last week - and Poasa Faamausili - who will join the team on loan next week. 

Jack Murchie has signed with the Warriors to give their forward pack some size.
Jack Murchie has signed with the Warriors to give their forward pack some size. Photo credit: Getty

But these injuries only add to the problems the team already had heading into the campaign, 

The Warriors' depth will certainly be questioned, but there is still lots of uncertainty around key positions in the halves and hooker - the same problem haunting the team for the last decade. 

Kodi Nikorima has been preferred to Chanel Harris-Tavita - who started in the opening two games - due to his experience, while Wayde Egan is still finding his feet at his new club, with the likes of Karl Lawton breathing down his neck. 

These are the players that are going to step up and support captain Tuivasa-Sheck. As good as he is, the 2018 Dally M winner is too often a one-man show and he will need teammates to help shed the load. 


The Warriors have been given one of the toughest schedules of the season, so they must take advantage of their easier fixtures if they want to defy the odds. 

Their easiest run of consecutive games in the early rounds where they'll face the St George Illawarra Dragons, Penrith Panthers and North Queensland Cowboys in the next three weeks. 

As the Warriors are one of six teams without a win before the season was stopped, they must take advantage as the shorter season means each win is more precious and every loss is more hurtful. 

Right now, all the talk has been positive about the Warriors due to the sacrifice they've made 

And getting those wins early will mean less pressure at the end of the season when their last four games come against the Parramatta Eels, Cronulla Sharks, Raiders and Manly Sea Sea Eagles. 

One tiny positive about the new schedule, their travel regime won't be so bad.

NZ Warriors coach Stephen Kearney.
NZ Warriors coach Stephen Kearney. Photo credit: Getty

Heading into the 2020 season, said the Warriors would have to travel 61,820km during the season, over 20,000km more than the North Queensland Cowboys in second.

It's a big year for: Stephen Kearney and Adam Blair 

Coach Kearney headed into the season knowing his head would be on the chopping block. He was one of the favourites alongside Dragons coach Paul McGregor to be the first coach sacked in 2020. 

And after two games it looked like his time would be up sooner rather than later. 

But due to the extreme circumstances the world is in due to COVID-19, his job might be saved if the Warriors once again struggle.

But his value as a coach will be tested more than ever as he has to keep on top of his players and help spur them on to victory. 

The injuries and other circumstances will make his job even much tougher considering how many inexperienced players are on the team. In the team to face the Dragons, eight out of the 17 named have less than 50 games of NRL experience. 

They will be similar messages coming from the senior players including Blair. 

Adam Blair.
Adam Blair. Photo credit: Photosport

From the second Blair was first linked to the Warriors back in 2017 in a deal reportedly worth $600,000 per-season, the move was criticised and questioned and three years on nothing has changed. 

Blair is the team's most experienced player with over 300 NRL caps to his name. He's won a World Cup with the Kiwis in 2008, played in two losing NRL Grand Finals in 06 and 08, eventually winning it in 09. 

The 34-year-old is always blasted on social media for his reckless play and giving away continual penalties. 

Plus remember the heartbreaking photo of Blair hugging his son before the team left for Tamworth? That should be the only inspiration he needs to prove doubters wrong and show he's worth the money the Warriors are paying him. 


The injuries have been well documented, but here is the list of NRL ready players available for the Warriors to chose from. 

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c), Gerard Beale, Adam Blair, Lachlan Burr, Josh Curran, Wayde Egan, Blake Green, Tohu Harris, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Peta Hiku, Patrick Herbert, Eliesa Katoa, Adam Keighran, Karl Lawton, Ken Maumalo, Jack Murchie, Agnatius Passi, Isaiah Papali'i, Hayze Perham, Adam Pompey, Leivaha Pulu, Nathaniel Roache, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, King Vuniyayawa

Ben Francis: Can the NZ Warriors defy odds, shock sporting world?

The list of players unavailable for their match against the Dragons 

David Fusitu'a (quarantine, round five), Nathaniel Roache (knee, July), Jazz Tevaga (knee, indefinite), Leeson Ah Mau (pectoral, season) Adam Keighran (knee, July-August), Taane Milne (knee, season), Jackson Frei (knee, season), Bunty Afoa (knee, season).


Since being given a second life in the 2011 NRL finals, luck has continually evaded the NZ Warriors. In fact luckless is the most common term associated with the team. 

They will hope that changes in 2020 as they will be needing a good dose of it if they are to make the eight. 

With the season restarting, they are already on the back foot being one of six teams who have failed to register a win this season. 

That's why their game against the Dragons is a must win. Less games in the season means  each defeat is far more significant. 

Realistically things were going to be tough before the pandemic and they certainly won't be any easier. They are the classic underdogs, nobody thinks they'll win, it's the Warriors against the world. 

But they have the chance to do something special, the chance to prove the doubters wrong.  

If they can get off to a strong start, like 2018, that momentum might go a long way, but like luck, consistency is one word rarely associated with the Warriors. 

Safe to say if the Warriors can pull a rabbit out of the hat, there will be a great blueprint for another Hollywood film. 

I'd love nothing more than to see the Warriors prove everybody wrong, fingers crossed luck is finally on their side. 

Ben Francis: Can the NZ Warriors defy odds, shock sporting world?