NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS V CANTERBURY-BANKSTOWN BULLDGOS – 5:00PM (NZT)/7:00PM (AEDT) @ MOUNT SMART STADIUM, AUCKLAND
The Storylines: While aiming to build on the outstanding on- and off-field foundations laid during a landmark 2018 campaign, the Warriors unmistakably launch into a new era this year. Simon Mannering and Shaun Johnson – the only two remaining members of the 2011 grand final side – are both gone. Solomone Kata, with a mere 87 NRL games, is incredibly the club’s longest-serving player.
Johnson’s acrimonious exit, and how they will replace the mercurial No.7, has inevitably dominated summer discussion around the Warriors. Expect to see a slightly more structured, disciplined game-plan in 2019 – partially out of necessity. But can the Warriors find enough points without Johnson (and, initially, the injured Issac Luke), or will his departure ultimately prove the making of Stephen Kearney’s team?
— Anton Posa (@antonposa) March 8, 2019
Canterbury finished an unflattering 12th in 2018 but finished with a wet sail, winning four of their last six games. They unearthed a host of young stars in a bright silver lining to a tough season, while the Mad Monday and Dylan Napa controversies have more or less subsided.
A crippling salary-cap situation has seen the Morris brothers and heart-and-soul prop David Klemmer leave, though the acquisition of Napa, Corey Harawira-Naera, Christian Crichton and Sauaso Sue arguably has them on the positive side of the recruitment/retention ledger. Kieran Foran’s ability to return to his best could make or break their season.
— NRL Bulldogs (@NRL_Bulldogs) March 12, 2019
Ins and Outs: With Adam Keighran getting the nod at five-eighth, Lachlan Burr earning a back-row start after Isaiah Papali’i was stood down, Nathaniel Roache slotting in at hooker for the injured Issac Luke and Blake Ayshford a surprise bench inclusion, the Warriors have a debutant and three players who have not appeared at NRL level in 18 months or more in their 17.
Kiwi Test prop Leeson Ah Mau will make his Warriors return off the bench, while the remainder of the hosts’ line-up is pretty much as per 2018. But there is plenty of interest around centres Peta Hiku and Solomone Kata switching sides. Will Big Ken’s snail-paced tryscoring strike-rate skyrocket outside Hiku? Will the meat pies dry up for Fus with alleged ball-hog Kata inside him?
Canterbury have named recruits Dylan Napa, Christian Crichton, Corey Harawira-Naera and Sauaso Sue in a line-up featuring six New Zealand-born players. Ex-Warriors Kieran Foran and Raymond Faitala-Mariner are both on deck for a Mount Smart return. Will Hopoate has the fullback duties after it was expected young gun Nick Meaney would wear the No.1.
— LeagueUnlimited 🏉 Rugby League News (@LeagueUnlimited) March 12, 2019
The History: Played 37 – Bulldogs won 21, Warriors won 14 (2 draws)
-The Warriors and Bulldogs have won eight matches apiece in 16 clashes at Mount Smart.
-The Bulldogs have won seven of the last nine encounters between the clubs, but the Warriors have won the last two North Island-hosted clashes.
-The last eight Warriors-Bulldogs games were decided by 12 points or less, including five games with a margin of four or less.
-Neither team has scored more than 27 points in the last eight games, but four of the last seven clashes have seen both teams score 20-plus.
3 Key Match-ups
Adam Keighran v Kieran Foran: Competent would be the most accurate way to describe former Penrith and Canterbury lower-grader Keighran’s trial form – despite many fans raving about his first-up performances in the Warriors’ halves. The 21-year-old has huge boots to fill on debut but has one of the calmest operators in the NRL in Blake Green to guide him through. What the Warriors require most from Keighran is the confidence to take the defensive line on and to keep busy. The focus on the Warriors No.6 has lifted the spotlight off opposite number Foran, who takes the field for the first time since Round 12 last year. But few players are under more pressure in 2019 than the 21-Test Kiwi.
Keighran will be given plenty of time – Stephen Kearney… https://t.co/6p8gjxLvYt
— Rugby League Week fans (@LeagueWeek) March 13, 2019
Agnatius Paasi v Dylan Napa: Paasi enjoyed a fine 2018 campaign back in Auckland and has the ultra-reliable Ah Mau for front-row back-up this season. But with James Gavet gone, the stage is set for the dynamic Paasi to take over as the Warriors’ No.1 enforcer. After the off-season from hell, Dylan Napa will be raring to go – but filling Bulldogs favourite David Klemmer’s spot shapes as the biggest test of his career. The towering firebrand may get found out playing in a forward pack boasting far less grunt than he was used to at the Roosters.
Ken Maumalo v Reimis Smith: Big Ken was on the shortlist of the NRL’s most improved players in 2018, the former enigma developing into one of the Warriors’ most reliable performers. After an underwhelming finish to the premiership, Maumalo enjoyed a superb post-season campaign with the Kiwis. But he has his work cut out up against Reimis Smith, the son of 1998 Warrior Tyran. Smith may only be 12 games deep into his NRL career but the 21-year-old is an absolute natural, possessing blinding speed and a penchant for the freakish on the flank.
Last Time They Met: A patchy Warriors performance at ANZ Stadium allowed the lowly Bulldogs to snatch a deserved 27-26 result in Round 23 last season, with rookie Lachlan Lewis stepping up to boot the best field goal of 2018 on his 22nd birthday. Lewis’ unique ability to seemingly make time stand still brought the Warriors undone all afternoon, producing two try-assists and scoring one himself.
The Warriors have won just two of 11 season openers. The Warriors are 2-9 against the spread in season openers. The Bulldogs have covered just 1 of their last 6 season openers. The Warriors are 14-22 against the line as a favourite over the last three seasons with a 6-15 cover record (14-7 over) when favoured by 4 or more points. The Bulldogs have covered 9 of 11 when an underdog of 4 or more. The Bulldogs are just 6-10 ATS when an underdog of 4 or more away from ANZ.
TAB’s Best Bet: Bulldogs +4 @ $1.90
The Verdict: This is an awkward first-up assignment for a new-look Warriors side – going in as one of Round 1 heaviest favourites, against an unfancied but unpredictable opponent, in front of a big and expectant home crowd. But the Warriors will bank on reproducing their clinical trial form and grinding out a win over the Bulldogs. The hosts have a distinct edge at fullback and in the forwards, while the Bulldogs also have their first interstate trip since last May to grapple with. Don’t expect the Warriors to have the two points stitched up with 10 minutes left, but they should get the job done. Warriors by 4