NRL: Marata Niukore's front-row switch gives NZ Warriors solution to Addin Fonua-Blake's impending exit

If NZ Warriors fans were concerned over the impending departure of Addin Fonua-Blake, the apparent shift of Marata Niukore could loom as the perfect solution.

Arguably the best front rower in the NRL last season, 28-year-old Fonua-Blake will leave the Warriors after 2024 to join Cronulla Sharks on a four-year deal.

Because of the way player contracting works in the NRL, the Warriors have nothing to show bar space on their salary cap, after releasing Fonua-Blake from the last two years of his contract.

Now, though, the Warriors have 12 months to find a solution as to who will take Fonua-Blake's place in their best side for 2025 and beyond.

Marata Niukore against the Dolphins.
Marata Niukore against the Dolphins. Photo credit: Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Kiwi club suffered a recruitment knockback, as Cronulla prop Braden Hamlin-Uele recommitted to the Sharks, despite a reported $2.2 million offer.

However, with world-class front rowers hard to come by, the solution might just lie within the club's ranks.

On Saturday, after starting on the bench, Niukore's impact in a 34-22 victory over the Dolphins in pre-season came playing through the middle.

After re-joining the Warriors from Parramatta Eels at the start of 2023, Niukore had complete ownership of the No.12 jersey, after becoming one of the most feared second rowers in the game.

But Kurt Capewell's signing from Brisbane Broncos has significantly changed the equation, and seemingly given the Australian first dibs on that spot come the start of the new season.

Off the bench, and covering both the front and second row, though, Niukore showed that he's more than capable of leading the way in the Warriors' forward pack.

In limited minutes, the 27-year-old scored one try, broke the line twice, and broke three tackles - as well as making 23 tackles on defence.  

And while he's unlikely to break up the current first-choice front row pairing of Fonua-Blake and Mitch Barnett, Niukore's presence as a prop gives the Warriors invaluable tactical flexibility.

"He was excellent," coach Andrew Webster said. "He was on the end of a try, he knows his role, he went back to edge back row at the end.  

"He gives us plenty of versatility. He gives us that big guy off the bench and then he can go to back row if we need him to.

"He's enjoyed that role [in] pre-season, he's bought in and he's keen to do it."

Niukore already boasts plenty of experience playing across the forward pack as well as in the centres in his five years with the Eels, including reaching the NRL Grand Final in 2022.