NRL: Coach Andrew Webster praises revamped NZ Warriors as pre-season fever builds

This weekend, the 2024 version of NZ Warriors will take to the field for the first time, when they face Wests Tigers in their maiden NRL pre-season contest in Christchurch.

And after their show-stealing resurgence last year, there's renewed optimism and a different sense of expectation this time around - both from their fans and coach Andrew Webster.

On Wednesday, the Warriors' new vintage jersey was released for sale. Eighteen minutes later, they were sold out. Fair to say, the Warriors faithful are brimming with aniticipation.

According to Webster, there's been a greater sense of assurance among his players at this stage of their campaign compared to last year, when they faced the uncertainty of life under a new head coach while embedding entirely new systems.

But with an emphatic proof of concept in their final-four finish and deep finals run last year, Webster says he's seen a different level of performance all-round from his squad.

"We're fitter, faster, stronger, that's the truth," Webster said.

"We've got to ask ourselves if we're executing things better and that's what we're about to find out.

Chanel Harris-Tavita during pre-season training.
Chanel Harris-Tavita during pre-season training. Photo credit: Photosport

"This time last year going into the first [trial] game, everyone was unsure, including ourselves, if everything we've practised would work and if it was the right way to do things.

"You can do it against each other, but the moment you get to do it against opposition, that's when you start to work it out and believing in it.

"After that game, it gave us a bit of faith. We looked organised that night.

"I don't know how organised we're going to look, but I'd be disappointed if we weren't."

Among those helping raise that bar have been the likes of returning club favourites Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Chanel Harris-Tavita.

Webster has wasted no time injecting them into the fray, naming both to start at centre and stand-off respectively.

Former Dally M medallist Tuivasa-Sheck will don the Warriors colours for the first time since July 2021, back in the fold from his rugby hiatus.

Harris-Tavita – who was one of few bright sparks during a very a dim 2022 – decided to take a step back from rugby league last year in favour of some travel, which mostly involved relaxing and reading on his uncle's farm in Samoa.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at Warriors pre-season training.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at Warriors pre-season training. Photo credit: Photosport

Neither have lost a step, Webster notes.

"The way they've trained has been unbelievable," Webster said.

"They've done a great job and Roger's strength has been making people miss.

"He can go at a guy that's about to tackle him and the guy thinks he's got him covered and the next moment he's gone.

"You don't really get to see that so often at training and when you go against an opposition at 100mph, you get to see that.

"We'll get to see how they transfer what they've done, but more importantly, they'll get to be themselves."

Playing under new head coach Benji Marshall, the Tigers have named a strong side, particularly upfront, where Isaiah Papali'i, Api Koroisau and David Klemmer will lead the Sydneysiders' charge.

The Warriors have leaned towards youth, giving promising centre Ali Leaitaua and wing Setu Tu chances to impress, while NZ Kiwis A stand-outs Jacob Laban and Kalani Going pack in upfront.

Webster says he welcomes the sternest challenge possible for what will effectively be a trial match for the Warriors, as he attempts to lock down his best backline among a sudden wealth of riches at his disposal.

"If you look at oustside backs right through to halves, I think that competition brings out the best in people

"We're about to see who stands up, who needs more work, who's going really well. We'll be able to put more in context after the weekend than what we can now."

There are only a handful of tickets left at Apollo Project Stadium, which is trending towards sell-out status.

Webster says that fact hasn't been lost on his players, who are eager to deliver for the NRL-starved Cantabrian fanbase, issuing a call to arms to the locals.

"I spoke to the boys this morning about how proud we should be about that," he said.

"To everyone down there, a quick message to come, we'd love your support... we want to celebrate what we've achieved and we want to say thank you to everyone.

"We want to grow the support even more, we want more people everywhere in New Zealand to want to play rugby league and support the Wahs.

"We hope we can do them proud and give them something to cheer for."