CAN WARRIORS STAVE OFF RIVALS FOR LINO?

Of all the fabulous individual storylines to emerge from the Warriors’ unprecedented early-season charge in 2018, few are as compelling as Mason Lino’s.

The long-serving lower-grade half has rapidly developed a cult following amongst Warriors fans after a couple of brilliant performances in boilover wins while filling in for injured superstar Shaun Johnson.

After going winless in his first nine NRL appearances, Lino shone in the undermanned Warriors’ shock 30-6 defeat of Sydney Roosters in Round 4 – just their third win in 19 games with Johnson. He returned to InTrust Super Premiership duty as Johnson came back for the next two rounds, before stepping up again in a heroic 20-12 victory over previously unbeaten St George Illawarra.

Lino scored the opening try in both upsets, including a brilliant solo effort against the Saints. His kicking game, playmaking composure, stout defence and purposeful running game were standout features of his performances, while he also nailed seven from seven off the tee against the Roosters.

Those twin showings prompted a section of Warriors fans – plus divisive journalists Paul Kent and Chris Rattue – to push for Lino’s retention in the No.7 ahead of perceived enigma Johnson.

The 24-year-old showed his character again in Wednesday 50-10 thrashing at the hands of Melbourne.

Exposed defensively by the rampant Storm in the 38-0 first half, Lino responded with a livewire display after the break, setting up both of David Fusitu’a’s tries.

“Mason’s playing at a level that we all knew he could produce,” Warriors assistant coach and club legend Stacey Jones told This Warriors Life.

“The hard thing for Mason is when he’s come in previously, he’s come into a team down on confidence and didn’t have a lot of experience around him.

“He’s come into a group now that’s got confidence and good leadership on the field, so Mason doesn’t have to worry about that.

“He keeps things pretty simple, he defends strongly. He’s got a solid game, Mason, he just needed a bit of luck to go his way as far as coming into the team at the right time.”

Lino first came to prominence as co-captain (with Sam Lisone) of the Jones-coached Warriors NYC grand final-winning team in 2014.

A shoulder injury suffered in that success saw his contract with French club AS Carcassonne cancelled. Instead, he moved up to ISP level with Jones the following season and made his NRL debut late in 2015 after injuries to first-choice halves Johnson and Chad Townsend.

But Lino was a permanent reserve-grader in 2016. Following the failure of the Jeff Robson experiment, Thomas Leuluai was Johnson’s preferred five-eighth, while Lino was seemingly leapfrogged in the pecking order by teenage gun Ata Hingano.

A Test debut for Samoa was a welcome highlight in 2016, however, and he earned six more NRL appearances during the Warriors’ disastrous late-2017 losing streak with Johnson and Kieran Foran in the casualty ward.

Jones points to Lino’s perseverance, professionalism and team-first attitude as some of his most impressive qualities.

“Mason’s always worked hard at his game, whether in the Under-20s or ISP, he always takes pride in what he does. He just needed to have some good timing when he came into the team,” Jones says.

“Previously the timing wasn’t ideal for him and he played in losing teams. When he did fill in, he did a really good job – he just didn’t have a team that was playing with confidence at that moment.”

But the nuggetty ball-player was regarded as not much more than a back-up heading into this year. There were howls of displeasure when Tonga Test wunderkind Hingano pulled up stumps and moved to Canberra in February in the wake of the Warriors’ capture of Blake Green from Manly.

There’s barely been a whisper about Hingano’s exit since Lino started carving up in top company.

Johnson and Green are the undisputed preferred pairing, however, and Lino inevitably will have to go back to being a big halfback fish in the small ISP pond.

“He’s a good bloke, and he understands the situation,” Jones assures.

“Obviously when he has to go back (to ISP), he’s disappointed, like anyone would be. But he understands and he knows that he has to bide his time and wait for opportunities like (he’s had recently).

Kent, Rattue and a few memes have strongly suggested room should be made for Lino – and Jones hinted that it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

“If he keeps performing the way he’s performing, obviously he’s going to give Stephen Kearney some real headaches to deal with.

“It’s about the group now. I’m sure Shaun’s sat back and watched Mason and was really pleased for him, and Shaun knows that when he comes back into the team he’s got to perform as well. It’s healthy competition to have someone like Mason in the squad putting pressure on those players.

“He’s learning off Shaun, he’s learning off Blake Green and we hope Mason will stay around for a long time and one day take over when these guys finish up their playing careers.”

The problem is, Lino has now proven himself as an NRL-quality half, but Johnson is contracted until the end of 2019 – and the Warriors are likely to move heaven and earth to extend his tenure – and veteran Green shifted to Auckland on a three-year deal.

Lino is also under contract until the end of next year, but his stellar form in in first grade is sure to have piqued the interest of NRL rivals in a player market light on quality playmakers.

Canberra, Gold Coast, Canterbury, Brisbane, Cronulla, Newcastle and Melbourne have all made form-related changes to their halves during the opening eight rounds of 2018, while Manly’s No.6 plight worsened this week after Green’s replacement, Lachlan Croker (who wasn’t setting the world on fire anyway), suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Lino is certain to be in high demand for 2019 – if not before June 30 this year.

“(Interest from other clubs is) going to happen – and that’s what you want to happen,” Jones says.

“You want players from your team to be performing at that level and for other clubs to become interested. It just shows that everyone’s doing their job when that happens.

“We want Mason to hang around forever – he’s an Auckland kid, he’s come through the juniors and we want him to hang around, and one day he will make that position his own.

“Whether that be sooner or later, I’m not sure.

“That’s the nature of this competition – when you’ve got depth, obviously you want these players to get some interest.”

If the Warriors can convince Lino to play the long game and wait for his belated shot at a regular NRL spot until he’s edging into his late-20s, they’ll need to upgrade his deal significantly in the meantime.

Few clubs can manipulate their salary cap enough to pay permanent first-grader coin for a player destined only to play a handful of NRL games each season.

Meanwhile, Johnson is scheduled to return for the Warriors’ Round 9 showdown with Wests Tigers, but Issac Luke’s knee injury could potentially create a bench utility role for Lino ahead of what shapes as an intriguing Team List Tuesday.

Left out of Samoa’s World Cup squad last season, Lino looms as a near-certainty for the island nation’s Pacific Test blockbuster against Tonga in June. He’s also a smoky for the Kiwis’ Test against England in Denver, should he make himself available and the selectors snub Benji Marshall yet again.

But however the rest of 2018 unfolds for Lino with the Warriors, at rep level, and in his contract situation, there’s no doubt he’s earned some crucial bargaining power with his giant-killing efforts on the NRL stage so far.

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