LONG-RANGE FORECAST: THE BIG QUESTION MARK HANGING OVER WARRIORS’ JOHNSON-LESS ATTACK

According to the Aussie pundits, the Warriors’ 2019 finals prospects are about as bright as Dylan Napa’s hopes of securing a GoPro sponsorship deal.

Of the 21 experts and staff polled by Big League magazine, just four tipped the Warriors for the Top 8. Three reckon the club will land a maiden wooden spoon.

Over at NRL.com, 13 of 21 polled named the Warriors to be the big sliders of 2019. Only three of the 23 experts asked by Fox Sports to hazard a Top 8 prediction could find room for the Warriors – the same amount that said they would finish last.

Across the board, the reason for the Warriors’ forecast was the same: Shaun Johnson’s departure. More specifically, the effect the now-Cronulla playmaker’s absence will have on their attack.

Warriors fans are generally far more optimistic – there seemed to be virtually a 50-50 split on whether Johnson leaving was actually beneficial for the side. His detractors point out perceived inconsistency and enigmatic qualities, and even a supposed negative impact he was having on team harmony and club culture.

But even the most stubborn anti-Johnson campaigner would have to admit the Warriors will be a less potent offensive force without the mercurial No.7 on deck for the first time in eight years.

In 162 games for the Warriors, Johnson scored 63 tries and produced 126 try-assists. That means he either scored or was directly responsible for just under one-third of every try his team posted in the games he played. Those stats don’t capture the many more tries he had a vital hand in.

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Last year he scored a career-low four tries but had a team-high 15 assists – despite missing six games. In Johnson’s 19 appearances, they scored 66 tries at 3.47 per game. Without him, 16 tries at 2.66 per game.

But TWL has pored over last year’s highlights to dig deeper into the Warriors’ 2018 campaign and dissected how they scored their tries.

Every try.

The Warriors chalked up three stoic wins and three heavy losses when Johnson was unavailable. And there was a distinct pattern as to how they got over the stripe in those six games: All 16 touchdowns came after a play-the-ball inside the opposition’s 20-metre zone. Seven of those were from a ruck less than 10 metres out from the try-line.

When Johnson played, 22 of the Warriors’ 66 tries – exactly one-third – originated outside the 20.

It was certainly no coincidence: Johnson had a hand in 14 of them, coming up with the try-assist for seven and scoring another two.

Deeper still. Nine of those tries were scored from beyond 40 metres out. Johnson made a line-break was credited with the try-assist in three of those, while he backed up to score two of them after handling earlier in the movement, and had two touches in another.

That leaves just three 2018 Warriors tries from outside the 40 that did not have Johnson’s imprint all over them (incidentally, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck streaked away to score two of them).

On the surface, there’s not much wrong with those numbers from a non-entertainment perspective as far as 2019 goes. It doesn’t matter how you score them, as long as you score them.

But scoring tries almost exclusively from inside the red-zone relies heavily on high completions and dominating territory and possession – as well as producing a first-rate defensive performance – if they’re to be converted into two premiership points.

Grinding out wins on that basis week after week, without a liberal dollop of X-factor to assist, is hard to do.

The Warriors’ wins over Sydney Roosters (30-6) and St George Illawarra (20-12) with Mason Lino standing in wonderfully for Johnson rank among the most memorable in the club’s recent history, deservedly so.

But after the Dragons triumph, the Johnson-less Warriors were trounced 50-10 by Melbourne. In Round 11 (which was preceded by a 32-0 home loss to the rejuvenated Roosters with Lino again in for Johnson), the Warriors – without Johnson and Tuivasa-Sheck – were courageous in 24-14 victory over eventual wooden-spooners Parramatta. But the comedown was a 30-10 loss to Souths at Mt Smart a week later.

It proved too difficult to come up with the arm-wrestle wins back-to-back. Meanwhile, the NRL’s better defensive outfits – in particular, the ones with tough, well-organised goal-line defence – proved too hard to put points on.

It was about this time that the ‘Warriors are better with Lino than Johnson’ chatter dried up. Johnson returned for a 34-14 thumping of Manly dripping with long-range tries sparked or scored by the talisman. His ability to beat an opponent cold or create an overlap by getting on the outside (not to mention his peerless ball-playing trickery) turned far more games than his critics will ever admit.

So does the current squad, with a whole off-season together since Johnson’s exit, have the ability to shore up an apparent inability to get to the tryline without having to painstakingly graft their way there every time?

Revisit the Warriors’ two 2019 trial games – both solid wins – and all seven of their tries came from play-the-balls inside or on the opposition’s 20-metre line.

Blake Green, wily and valuable as he is, made one line-break in 2018 and would have rank among the slowest halves in the competition. Likely rookie halves partner Adam Keighran looks a tenacious competitor who is willing to take the line on, but certainly not one who will ghost into the back-field through footwork or blistering speed. Chanel Harris-Tavita possesses a bit more flash, but the 19-year-old has other areas to work on that will probably see him start the year in the ISP.

David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo are on their way to becoming the greatest wing pairing in the club’s history, but neither are likely to venture off their flank and create something out of nothing like a Jordan Rapana. Centres Solomone Kata and Peta Hiku boast admirable attacking gifts, but Latrell Mitchell they ain’t. You wouldn’t swap Tohu Harris and Isaiah Papali’i for many second-rowers in the NRL – nor would you expect them to bust the line and run away for a 40-metre try à la Angus Crichton.

That leaves a hell of a lot of responsibility on Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke, who already played a huge part in driving the Warriors’ attack in 2018 and already shoulder a monumental load in other departments. Shut them down and, apparently, you snuff out the Warriors’ long-range attacking threat.

A glance across just about every other roster in the NRL reveals a handful of players with the qualities the Warriors (who, by the way, have somewhere in the vicinity of a million bucks free in their salary cap) now seem to lack.

It’s a factor that may eventually see the Warriors take a punt on the electric-but-raw Hayze Perham in the halves.

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This may come across as a pre-season doomsaying piece the likes of which TWL traditionally despises, so it should be noted that the Warriors possess many title-worthy qualities on and off the field – the club has come a long way in the past 12-15 months and Johnson leaving won’t bring the Warriors to their knees. There are sure to be some positive upshots.

But hopefully Stephen Kearney and his trusted offsiders have a few tricks and contingencies up their sleeves, because second-man plays and block runners aren’t going to be enough to win the 2019 premiership, or even buck the general consensus that the Warriors won’t make the eight.

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