NRL: NZ Warriors fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to miss opening three weeks of season with injury

Coach Andrew Webster has resisted labelling this weekend's side to face the Dolphins in NZ Warriors' final NRL pre-season outing his first-choice line-up, leaving the door open for some of the team's fringe members to force their way into the first game-day squad of 2024.

Webster wants to ensure his entire line-up has had a taste of pre-season action by the time the final whistle blows at Mt Smart on Saturday, insisting he needs to see more beyond last weekend's close loss to Wests Tigers in Christchurch before finalising his preferred 17.

"I'll play it by ear, because I thought there were some really strong performances on the weekend," said Webster after Tuesday's team training session.

"Then there were some guys that obviously I think they've earned themselves, the way they've trained and the way they've played in the past.

"I've got a real clear indication right now of eight or nine guys. But the rest I'm not 100 percent sure on.

"I'm really open minded to see how these performances go this weekend."

Shaun Johnson at Warriors training.
Shaun Johnson at Warriors training. Photo credit: Photosport

The most glaring omission against the Tigers was linchpin Shaun Johnson, who has fully recovered from his ankle injury and will reclaim his No. 7 jersey for his first taste of on-field action this year against the Dolphins, slotting in beside Luke Metcalf.

One very notable exception will be Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. Issues with the fullback's hamstring and back are expected to keep him sidelined for the opening three weeks of the season against Cronulla Sharks (March 8), Melbourne Storm (March 16) and Canberra Raiders (March 22).

"We assessed it and we thought that he'd be back for this trial," said Webster.  

"But we're probably going to really strip him down, get him right and make sure we've got him right for the long haul.

"We'll play it by ear, but he won't play this weekend."

Taine Tuaupiki will continue to start in his absence, with Webster ruling out any possibility of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck shifting back from centre to reprise his former role as custodian.

"Taine is it. I've said that from day one," Webster said.

"I told Taine that, told Roger that. I do believe if Taine wasn't available for selection as well, for whatever reason, then Roger would have to do a job there.

"It's not that we won't see Roger in some capacity at some stage there, but I'm hoping we don't have to, because everyone's fit.

"It's just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes and we'd be mad not to give Roger an opportunity at that and some reps there at some stage, because that could happen."

Kurt Capewell.
Kurt Capewell. Photo credit: Photosport

Recent acquisition Kurt Capewell will don the Warriors jersey for the first time, named to start in an overhauled forward pack alongside Addin Fonua-Blake, Wayde Egan, Mitchell Barnett, Tohu Harris, and Jackson Ford, who's the only member of the pack backing from last weekend.  

In the backline, wing Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and centre Rocco Berry return.

The four players who represented the Māori All Stars in Townsville last Friday - Jazz Tevaga, Dylan Walker, Adam Pompey and Te Maire Martin - have all been named on the extended bench, as have Chanel Harris-Tavita and Dylan Walker.

Several of the younger squad members left an impression on Webster during the match against the Tigers in front of a raucous sold-out crowd in the Garden City, singling out forward Jacob Laban, development player Leka Halasima, and "beast" centre Ali Leiataua for special mention. All three will have another opportunity to state their case on Saturday.

He also rued the very brief appearance of Zyon Maiu'u, who departed just moments after he'd joined the fray due to a high shot that saw Tigers centre Declan Casey stretchered from the field.

Maiu'u has pleaded not guilty to a judiciary charge of a grade two reckless high tackle. He'll face a hearing Tuesday night and will face a five-week ban if found guilty.

Webster says Maiu'u has been a stand-out throughout the pre-season and - having taken full responsibility for his actions - expects to see plenty more of a much more positive nature from the youngster.

"The boys are around him. He's really gutted.

"He feels he's worked so hard and, one, he didn't want that to happen and, two, he's worked so hard all pre-season and it feels like his opportunity has been taken away from him.

"He's not blaming he just wishes he could show what he could do."

Selection conundrums caused by squad depth are the type of problem coaches always welcome, and Webster is no different.

He says there's been a noticeable lift in intensity on the training paddock since last weekend's contest, as players vie for one last chance to make an impression on the selectors before the season kicks off in earnest.

"They know that if I don't do this, then that guy is going to take [my spot]," Webster notes. "In the past, they've probably felt safe around that.

"I think it's coming from the youth coming through, meaning the experienced players are on their toes, so that's bringing out the best in them.

"I always find that the best players, they don't let the young guys come along. Then the best players when they are young, they take it off them."

Warriors: 1-Taine Tuaupiki, 2- Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 3-Rocco Berry, 4-Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 5-Marcelo Montoya, 6-Luke Metcalf, 7-Shaun Johnson, 8-Addin Fonua-Blake, 9-Wayde Egan, 10- Mitchell Barnett, 11-Jackson Ford, 12- Kurt Capewell, 13-Tohu Harris

Extended bench: 14-Freddy Lussick, 15-Marata Nuikore, 16-Jazz Tevaga, 17-Bunty Afoa, 18-Dylan Walker, 20-Tom Ale, 21- Ali Leiataua, 22-Adam Pompey, 23-Te Maire Martin, 24-Chanel Harris-Tavita, 25-Jacob Laban, 26-Moala Graham-Taufa, 27-Leka Halasima