NRL: NZ Warriors wing Dallin Watene-Zelezniak credits quality whānau time for career-best form

NZ Warriors' try-scoring machine Dallin Watene-Zelezniak credits the return to the creature comforts of home for his red-hot form this season, which he describes as some of the best of his near decade-long NRL career. 

Through 15 games, Watene-Zelezniak is the team's leading tryscorer, after crossing the chalk - often in spectacular fashion - 12 times through the fifth-placed Warriors' campaign so far, becoming the first player from the club to reach a double-figure tally since 2018.

He sits tied for ninth in the NRL's overall tryscoring, a feat all the more impressive for the fact he missed the opening five rounds of the competition with a calf injury. 

On per-game average, the Waikato product is comfortably the competition's best. He's dotted down 10 times through the past five contests, highlighted by his four-try haul in Friday's 48-18 dismantling of St George Dragons.

After two years of disruption caused by the team's COVID-19 relocation to Australia, Watene-Zeleniak - who spent his first six NRL years in Sydney - says the opportunity to spend more quality time with wife Purdy and three kids, and a regular routine have been massive factors in his irresistible 2023 play.

"You always aim high," said Watene-Zelezniak. "You write down things like your processes and your routine, and what work, so if you have a good game, you try and keep the same thing.

"I've got a really good routine at the moment, and most of it is family time with my wife and kids. I think, when I'm getting away from footy, I'm really getting away from footy. 

"I'm spending quite a bit of time with my kids and my wife, and making memories. A big reason why we moved back here is because I'm from here and I wanted them to experience that.

"We're living it up and really enjoying our time, and getting a bit of gaming in, which is nice."

During his 2021 debut season with the club, Watene-Zelezniak made the difficult decision to miss the birth of his third child, when a COVID outbreak in Sydney forced the squad to relocate to the Gold Coast for a month.

He watched daughter Lola's birth via video link and had to wait more than a month to finally meet her, reuniting with Purdy in Queensland.

His newfound stability at home has translated to the field, where he admits he's - quite literally - taken his game to new heights with his now trademark aerial finishing.

Watene-Zeleniak, 27, described his pre-season under new coach Andrew Webster as the most valuable he's experienced.

"I feel like I'm playing some of my best football, but I just put that down to the coaches and what they're teaching us, and what the middles are doing," he said.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on the break.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on the break. Photo credit: Getty Images

"You always have high hopes. The amount I learnt in pre-season, my mind was refreshed a lot and I learnt probably the most I have in the years I've played. 

"I knew I was going to have things that I didn't have in my game before, but I got injured at the start of the year too, so I was battling that. My focus was just getting back into the team, because we were doing so well."

Watene-Zelezniak has formed a devastating Warriors backfield trio with fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and wing Marcelo Montoya, which has earned a deserved reputation for its direct running early in sets that has helped set the tone for the team's forwards to dominate through the middle third of the field.

Against the Dragons at Wollongong, they combined for 528 running metres, eight linebreaks and 13 tackle busts, but it's the Warriors' third-ranked defence that Watene-Zelezniak believes is setting the tone for the teams finely tuned attack.

"I think we have a really good system at the moment - knowing exactly what we need to know and knowing when we want to do it," he said.

"It's something we really focus on. You know that cliche that defence wins games, it's very true and we're reaping the rewards from it.

"We've got a lot of little things we can improve. There's still minor things we're getting wrong in defence, but I think our effort is cleaning up a lot of those.

"For us on the right edge, we're really working hard on it and it's really rewarding to be able to do things on the weekend that you practice during the week." 

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak offloads.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak offloads. Photo credit: Getty Images

With three consecutive victories to their name, winning is fast becoming a habit for this iteration of the Warriors, which has contributed hugely to the overall morale within the squad.

With eight rounds left to play, they've already recorded three more wins than they managed their entire 2022 season, which Watene-Zeleniak admits has - unsurprisingly - resulted in a much improved vibe at Go Media Mt Smart and a thriving culture.

"Everyone gets along" he said. "We get together on our bye weekends when we have time off, which shows where we're at as a team - it's good to be around each other

"Not saying last year we didn't want to be around each other, but last year, it was a bit harder.

"We're in a sport that's driven by results. Moods, the way we are at home and around our own family, and each other depends on results.

"We've had results go our way this year and I think that's definitely helping towards our culture."

The upcoming four-week stretch shapes as vital for the Warriors' top-four ambitions, as they square off with teams around them on the ladder, beginning Friday against South Sydney Rabbitohs, when Watene-Zelezniak hopes a sold-out crowd will be at its most hostile.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scores one of his trademark aerial tries.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scores one of his trademark aerial tries. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I remember coming here, when I was playing for other teams against the Warriors," he recalled.

"It's quite hard to come here and play - the crowd spray you. I'm glad the crowd is on my side now.

"They're quite a good team, so it's going to be a good game for us to see where we're at as a team and individually as well

"I feel like we're getting that little bit better every week - in terms of game fitness, game play and knowing what our strengths are."

And for those Warriors fans becoming used to that flowing mane making a beeline for the corner flag - fear not. 

Despite his protestations, the Warriors' Samson won't be chopping off his locks anytime soon, his wife is making sure of that.

"To be honest I wanted to cut this off quite a while ago, but it's my wife who wants me to keep it," Watene-Zelezniak confessed, revealing her leave-in conditioner has been the secret behind his sheen.

"It's getting a bit long now. It got pulled the other day in the game so it might have to get a little trim." 

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