2020 VISION: WARRIORS BACK-THREE

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There may be cavernous holes throughout the Warriors’ roster, but the fullback and wing departments are the positional areas of least concern for the club.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Ken Maumalo are among the NRL’s top bracket, while there is decent injury coverage – but David Fusitu’a’s alarming 2019 drop-off is the elephant in the room.

A couple of promising tyros are sweating on an opportunity on the wing. Will coach Stephen Kearney be willing to roll the dice or stick with his safe-and-steady back-ups.

 

ROGER TUIVASA-SHECK

While the rugby league fraternity fawns over James Tedesco’s blistering efforts at the back for the dominant Sydney Roosters, a strong ‘world’s best fullback/player’ case can be made for ‘RTS’. The Warriors’ indomitable captain was arguably better last year than when he claimed a historic Dally M Medal in 2018, given how much worse his side was collectively.

Tuivasa-Sheck landed equal-fifth in the 2019 Dally M count – the best of any player from clubs that missed the finals. It would have been higher but for some baffling early-season voting. His capture of the Golden Boot was richly deserved after a superb contribution for the Kiwis.

He led the competition for all runs and run metres – averaging over 200 in the latter category – and set a new NRL record with a staggering 368 metres in the golden point draw in Brisbane. The 26-year-old also made 136 tackle-breaks (second in the NRL) and contributed 10 try-assists, his highest tally since joining the Warriors.

Besides his relentless, workhorse efforts at the back, Tuivasa-Sheck remains the Warriors’ chief attacking spearhead. He is seemingly the only player in the squad – bar maybe Kodi Nikorima – capable of threatening from long-range. ‘RTS’s’ astonishing at-the-death plays that came agonisingly close to snatching wins against the Broncos and Eels bordered on superhuman.

The skipper clearly shoulders too heavy a load. The Warriors would have taken out the wooden spoon without him last year – and they’ll be in all sorts if anything were to happen to him in 2020.

NRL RECORD: 160 games – 49 tries (196 points); Fullback: 106 games – 33 tries (132 points)
WARRIORS RECORD: 76 games – 21 tries (84 points) all fullback
STATS THAT MATTER
-Tuivasa-Sheck (1,272) was the only fullback to make more than 1,000 post-contact metres during the 2019 regular season.
-His 488 runs led the rest of the NRL field by 40 carries.
-Since returning from his 2016 ACL injury, ‘RTS’ has played 69 of a possible 73 games.
2020 BEST CASE: More of the Warriors players follow Tuivasa-Sheck’s example and ease his workload as the side surges back into the playoffs picture.
2020 WORST CASE: An extended stint on the sidelines for the skipper completely derails the club’s campaign.

 

KEN MAUMALO

Big Ken was arguably the premiership’s most improved player in 2018, but the giant flank-man climbed several more rungs on the NRL’s winger hierarchy last season.

Easily the Warriors’ second-best player in 2019 – with daylight occupying the next few spots – Maumalo led the competition for post-contact metres and finished only behind Tuivasa-Sheck in the all runs and run metres categories. He took to the ‘extra forward’ role that has become essential for the modern winger with gusto, consistently doing a job the Warriors’ engine-room was largely incapable of.

But the most striking development in Maumalo’s game was his finishing. After scoring 14 tries in 64 games prior to 2019, the softly-spoken powerhouse dotted down 17 times in 23 games – including several sideline-defying aerial efforts David Fusitu’a would be proud to call his own.

Just as importantly, Maumalo is reliable under the high ball and has improved out of sight defensively, often coming up with vital plays without the ball. A stellar campaign was rewarded with Dally M Winger of the Year honours, while the 26-year-old cemented his place in the New Zealand Test line-up.

The bar is set relatively low among the current squad, but Maumalo’s consistency and work-rate in a poorly performing team sets him apart as a genuine leader.

WARRIORS RECORD: 87 games – 31 tries (124 points) all wing
STATS THAT MATTER
-Maumalo had never scored two tries in an NRL game prior to last season. He bagged five doubles in 2019.
-He ran for 200-plus metres 11 times in 2019 – including a streak of seven straight games.
-Maumalo has played 79 of a possible 84 games since forging a regular wing spot at the Warriors in mid-2016.
2020 BEST CASE: Another season of 15-plus tries and a second straight Dally M positional gong.
2020 WORST CASE: The tries dry up and the fumbles return.
 

DAVID FUSITU’A

Fusitu’a topped the NRL in 2018 with a club record-equalling 23 tries in 23 games – many courtesy of spectacular airborne efforts that have long been his trademark. The Tongan Test hero notched just five tries (including one via a Bunker howler against Penrith) in 16 games last year as injuries and personnel changes severely limited his impact.

Many pointed to Peta Hiku’s shift from right centre, alongside Fusitu’a, to the left as the chief reason for the try drought. It certainly had an impact – Hiku provided the assist for seven of Fusitu’a’s tries in 2018. After Solomone Kata’s demotion, Fusitu’a barely had a chance to build a new combination due to his and centre replacement Patrick Herbert’s injury woes.

But Fusitu’a suffered more sharply from Shaun Johnson’s exit. Johnson was credited with 11 try-assists for Fusitu’a four-pointers in 2018 – all but one from a pass. With Blake Green shifted to the right-side attack – and the snail-paced veteran’s inability to create the overlaps the fleet-footed Johnson was so adept at – the buffet of scoring chances vanished into meagre rations for the athletic flyer. Silky-skilled Tohu Harris’ long-term injury also hampered the Warriors’ right-side attack, with Isaiah Papali’i a second-rate second-row link man.

On the bright side, Fusitu’a averaged 121 metres per game in 2019 – up from 106 the previous season. He rarely shirked his work in the back-field, making at least 90 metres in all 16 of his outings last year.

But Fusitu’a needs to venture off the flank later in sets, as Raiders wingers Nick Cotric and Jordan Rapana do so well. If the straightforward tryscoring chances are going to be as scarce as they were in 2019, Fusitu’a’s skillset may be better employed at centre, where he has started 19 NRL games and scored 12 tries.

NRL RECORD: 96 games – 60 tries (240 points); Wing: 70 games – 47 tries (188 points)
STATS THAT MATTER
-Fusitu’a’s worst season strike-rate prior to last year was 0.5 tries per game (12 tries in 24 games in 2017). He scored his tries at 0.31 per game in 2019 (five tries in 16 games).
-Fusitu’a has managed more than 18 appearances in just two of his seven NRL campaigns (2017-18).
2020 BEST CASE: Kodi Nikorima or Chanel Harris-Tavita are allowed to play both sides of the ruck, creating more chances for Fusitu’a, who also mixes his game up to become re-established as one of the NRL’s most valuable wingers.
2020 WORST CASE: The 25-year-old struggles to shake his injury issues and is usurped by one of the Warriors’ young wing prospects.
 

PETA HIKU

While the fact Hiku is regarded as the Warriors’ undisputed No.1 centre is an indictment on that particular area of the roster, the journeyman’s versatility is a bonus. Few clubs can boast fullback cover of similar quality.

Hiku has filled in at the back for Tuivasa-Sheck three times, for wins against Parramatta and Manly in 2018 and a magnificent display in a losing effort in Melbourne last year. Fullback is clearly the 27-year-old’s best position, meaning ‘RTS’s’ occasional absences aren’t the disaster they potentially could be.

STATS THAT MATTER
-Hiku’s fullback résumé includes five Tests for New Zealand and two NRL finals matches for Manly.
-In his sole 2019 outing in the No.1 – a gallant 13-12 Anzac Day loss to the Storm – Hiku recorded a try-assist, four tackle-breaks, 144 metres and eight tackles.

GERARD BEALE

Beale has become the next cab of the rank when a member of the Warriors’ first-choice three-quarter line is injured. Reliable and steady but oh-so-unthreatening, the injury-prone 29-year-old has made seven starts on the wing among 25 appearances for the club since arriving with a broken leg at the end of 2017.

The former Cronulla premiership winner’s luckless run continued late last season when he suffered a shocking kneecap injury against the Roosters. He is not expected to be available until mid-season – but at this stage of his career, Beale shapes as a gap-filler at best.

Better suited to centre than wing.

STATS THAT MATTER
-Beale started four games on the wing for the Warriors in 2019 for four losses. He averaged 100 metres in those outings, and totalled one try, one line-break and five tackle-breaks.
-Beale has scored three tries in five Tests on the wing for New Zealand but has scored just 16 tries in 57 NRL starts on the flank.

 

ADAM POMPEY

Injuries to Fusitu’a, Maumalo, Herbert and Beale gave Pompey a handful of NRL opportunities late last season, starting three games on the wing before lining up in the centres in the Warriors’ final two outings of a dismal campaign.

The ex-Wesley College 1st XV gun and Sydney Roosters lower-grader was the Warriors’ Canterbury Cup Player of the Year in 2019, playing predominantly at fullback. But Pompey seems to lack the pace and X-factor to cut it as an NRL winger – he averaged 64 metres in his three games on the flank and recorded one tackle-break.

The 21-year-old was more effective at centre – scoring a try in each of the Warriors’ last two games – but in a backline crying out for dynamic impact, Pompey should be a fair way down the pecking order.

STATS THAT MATTER
-Pompey ran for over 200 metres three times during the 2019 Canterbury Cup season.
-He scored six tries in six NRL and Canterbury Cup starts at centre, but just one try in six games on the wing.

 

TAANE MILNE

Warriors fans were baffled by the continued snubbing of off-season recruit Milne as injuries persistently ate into the club’s backline stocks. Stephen Kearney preferred the likes of Beale, Pompey and Blake Ayshford as his centre/wing back-ups.

After cutting his teeth in the NRL with St George Illawarra, Fiji’s World Cup sensation was axed by Wests Tigers in 2018 for a positive drugs test before playing a game for the club. The Warriors threw Milne a lifeline ahead of last season and he was a strong reserve grade performer – mostly as a centre or second-rower.

Though named at centre for his belated NRL call-up in the final round against Canberra, Milne played on the wing and made an enormous impact.

The 24-year-old racked up 129 metres (59 post-contact), had three tackle-breaks and two offloads, and produced one of the biggest hits of the season on Josh Hodgson.

Milne is a potential match-winner who must come under consideration for a wing, centre or back-row spot in 2020.

STATS THAT MATTER
-Milne tallied 50-plus post-contact metres in five Canterbury Cup games and his sole NRL appearance in 2019.
-He averaged 113 running metres in three games on the wing at Canterbury Cup and NRL level in 2019.

 

HAYZE PERHAM

The 20-year-old is one of the most exciting and versatile talents the Warriors have on their roster, but at present it’s tough to see where he fits into the club’s first-grade picture. He made two brief interchange appearances at NRL level during the opening two months of the 2019 season.

Also a handy five-eighth and centre, Perham played four games at fullback for the Warriors’ Canterbury Cup side early in 2019 and should be the club’s third-string No.1 behind RTS and Hiku.

An electric ball-runner with sound playmaking instincts.

STATES THAT MATTER
-In four Canterbury Cup matches at fullback in 2019, Perham scored two tries, recorded two try-assists and averaged 139.5 metres per game.

 

SELESTINO RAVUTAUMADA

Former Rotorua BHS 1st XV star Ravutaumada is yet to feature at Canterbury Cup level, but he has been included as a Warriors development squad player for 2020 alongside the likes of Rocco Berry and Paul Turner.

The Fiji-born flyer, who only came to New Zealand in 2016, made an impressive fist of his first season in the 13-a-side code last year. He scored nine tries in 14 Jersey Flegg games – including a four-try haul against Parramatta – and represented the Junior Kiwis against Australian Schoolboys and Fiji at the World Cup Nines.

Ravutaumada turned 20 last week and will be looking to start the season on the wing for the Warriors’ reserve grade side.

STATS THAT MATTER
– Ravutaumada averaged 111 metres per game in 14 Jersey Flegg games in 2019.

SETU TU

In just 15 Canterbury Cup appearances on the wing in 2019, Tu scored 15 tries and made 17 line-breaks.

The Warriors posted the third-least tries per game in their history last season – they clearly need more strike. There’s been little buzz about the Otahuhu product, but Tu’s lower-grade efforts suggest he is worthy of an opportunity in the top flight.

WATCH SETU TU’S 2019 HIGHLIGHTS VIA JBP SPORTS EDITS

STATS THAT MATTER
-Tu averaged 127.8 metres per game in 15 Canterbury Cup games last year, failing to break triple figures just once.
-The tyro finished 2019 with 70 tackle-breaks – an average of 4.67 per game.

 

ROCCO BERRY

The Warriors secured the signature of 18-year-old rugby union prospect Rocco Berry – the son of 1986 and ’93 All Black Marty Berry – on a four-year contract in July.

A tall fullback/winger in the 15-a-side code, Berry junior appears to boast pace, great footy instincts and brilliant ball skills. He has been included in the Warriors’ NRL development squad for 2020 and a first-grade call-up this year is not out of the question.

ROCCO BERRY SCHOOLBOY HIGHLIGHTS

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