Veteran pivot Blake Green is being hailed as the Warriors’ possible saviour, but coach Stephen Kearney’s most pertinent problems lie outside the key playmaking positions.
Another year, another pre-season of expectations on the enigmatic New Zealand Warriors – though they are somewhat muted ahead of the 2018 premiership after six straight failed finals bids.
Pundits and fans have been burnt too often, and not many of either are predicting a top-eight finish.
But the addition of Kiwi Test stars Adam Blair, Tohu Harris, Peta Hiku and Gerard Beale, along with the mouthwatering-if-unfulfilled array of talent already on the club’s books, sees the Warriors retain ‘sleeping giant’ status.
The recruit who is generating the most attention and excitement, however, doesn’t have a representative resumé to speak of.
Journeyman five-eighth Blake Green was officially announced as a 2018 signing by the Warriors in November, and plenty of respected voices believe he could be the key to the underperforming outfit finally realising their potential.
This week Jamie Soward told NRL.com the 31-year-old ‘potentially could be the buy of the year’ – a fair wrap given the likes of Cooper Cronk, Matt Moylan, James Maloney, James Tedesco, Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga, Ben Hunt, James Graham, Josh Reynolds and Dane Gagai will be donning new colours.
Green made only a modest impact at Parramatta, Cronulla and Canterbury from 2007-10 before starring in the Super League with Hull KR and Wigan. But his value Down Under has skyrocketed after two excellent seasons in the Melbourne No.6 jumper – including a grand final appearance in 2016 – and a wonderful one-off campaign with Manly last year.
The Cabramatta junior proved a desperately-needed steadying influence for the resurgent Sea Eagles and rejuvenated halfback Daly Cherry-Evans, who enjoyed arguably the finest season of his career after struggling in 2016, his first year without long-time partner Kieran Foran.
It’s hoped Green can be a similar foil for Shaun Johnson, the uniquely gifted Warriors No.7 who is routinely lambasted for a perceived lack of consistency.
Finding the perfect partner for Johnson has been an obsession for Warriors fans and the rugby league fraternity at large since linchpin James Maloney left at the end of 2012.
Kiwi veteran Thomas Leuluai was one of the Warriors’ best in wearing the No.6 in all 24 matches alongside Johnson in 2013. Chad Townsend probably got more plaudits than he deserved while occupying the role in 2014-15. The Jeff Robson experiment was a dismal failure, abandoned after six rounds of 2016 before Leuluai returned to halves. Foran and Johnson only played together 12 times as both superstars battled injuries during 2017.
All five-eighths of varying ability who provided varying levels of stability and value. Yet overall results (and Johnson’s up-and-down form) have remained more or less the same throughout the taxing six-season period.
Which suggests there are other factors affecting the Warriors’ perennial failures – like their forward pack’s incapability of laying a consistently solid platform for the team’s gifted playmakers. It’s no coincidence Johnson, like any half, flourishes when the Warriors engine-room has muscled up and earned at least an even share of middle-third dominance.
That shortcoming was magnified in 2017, when the Warriors produced their lowest win tally since 2004 despite boasting the first-choice New Zealand Test spine. The forwards simply couldn’t give the Luke-Johnson-Foran-RTS quartet (which, admittedly, only teamed up for half of the Warriors’ 24 games) anything to work off the back of.
After finally returning from injury in Round 7, the long-serving Ben Matulino was a shadow of the offloading, big-hitting pylon that once was as highly-rated in Australia as any Warriors prop has ever been.
Tremendous clubman Jacob Lillyman was reliable but started to show his age. Sam Lisone was wildly inconsistent yet played all but one game and Ligi Sao made 11 nondescript appearances, while seemingly better options Albert Vete (seven games) and Charlie Gubb (11 games) fell out of favour.
The bruising James Gavet was enjoying a breakout year before injury kept him sidelined after Round 19; the rangy enforcer’s 13-game contribution included five of the Warriors’ seven season victories, but they didn’t win again after his campaign ended early.
A look back through the Warriors’ often tortured history suggests a strong pack is more important to their success than blue-chip halves.
The Warriors last finished in the top four in 2007, with the low-profile combination of Grant Rovelli and Michael Witt calling the shots in the halves. Witt and the tenacious-but-limited Nathan Fien were the six and seven when the Warriors stormed into a preliminary final a year later.
The then-unknown Maloney and well-travelled Brett Seymour steered the club to fifth in 2010, before a still-inexperienced Maloney and precocious rookie Johnson took the Warriors to the 2011 grand final.
Even during the Stacey Jones-inspired halcyon era of the early-2000s, ‘The Little General’s’ right-hand men were untried local juniors Motu Tony, Lance Hohaia and Leuluai.
The common thread in the Warriors’ seven top-eight finishes (aside from rather understated halves pairings) have been a contingent of experienced, hard-nosed, aggressive, skilful forwards who know how to get over their opposites.
During the early-2000s Kevin Campion tied together a take-no-prisoners pack featuring Jerry Seuseu, Ali Lauiti’iti, Awen Guttenbeil and Richard Villasanti. In the late-2000s Steve Price and Ruben Wiki were the Warriors’ bedrock, ably supported by the likes of Sam Rapira, Simon Mannering and Micheal Luck.
Rapira, Mannering and Luck were in peak form – as were Lillyman, Matulino and Russell Packer – as the Warriors reached the 2011 decider, which has proved to be one of the NRL’s great false dawns.
Coach Stephen Kearney has cleared the decks up front with Matulino, Lillyman, Gubb, Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson all heading elsewhere.
Kiwi stalwarts Blair and Harris, along with Auckland-bred ex-Titans Leivaha Pulu and Agnatius Paasi, will be expected to fill the breach. Gavet playing 20-plus games (while maintaining his 2017 form) is vital, it’s a make-or-break year for Lisone and Sao, while Kearney has already indicated he expects Vete to play a more prominent role in 2018.
The unwavering Mannering will be there again, of course, as will promising tyros Bunty Afoa, Isaiah Papalii and Tevita Satae.
Maybe Blake Green is the unlikely cog capable is steering the dilapidated Warriors bandwagon back into the station – but there’s a few other problems under the hood that need to get sorted out before the fairweather mob should think about getting on board again.