Centre is a traditional problem spot for the Warriors and rarely have the club’s ranks been thinner on quality or experience than they are now.
Clinton Toopi (111 games at centre from 2001-06) stands out like a beacon in the Warriors’ narrative in terms of impact and longevity at centre. The enigmatic Solomone Kata (92 games) and injury-prone Jerome Ropati (86 games) are the only other Warriors with the equivalent of two or more full seasons in the position.
Meanwhile, other potential world-beaters were in the Warriors’ ranks too fleetingly (Dean Bell, Brent Tate), left before their prime (Nigel Vagana, Shontayne Hape), arrived well after their prime (Kevin Iro, Shaun Berrigan) or were too erratic (Richie Blackmore, Konrad Hurrell). Some of their best centres have been specialist back-rowers, such as Simon Mannering and Lewis Brown.
Incredibly, the most prolific Warriors centre pairings turned out together just 30 times: Tate and Ropati, and Kata and Blake Ayshford.
The fact Dane Nielsen played 30 games at centre for the Warriors probably sums up the club’s trials and tribulations in the centre department better than any stat.
Peta Hiku is the undisputed No.1 centre at Penrose currently, improving from a wildly inconsistent 2018 to be one of the Warriors’ most reliable performers last year after being switched from the right side to the left.
The maligned Kata was jettisoned after just six rounds of the 2019 campaign, linking with Melbourne and now the Brumbies. Patrick Herbert made an outstanding start to his NRL career at right centre but subsequently succumbed to injuries and uneven form. Ayshford (who hung up the boots at the end of the season), Gerard Beale and equally bland rookie Adam Pompey were others to get a chance in the role.
There are options at Stephen Kearney’s disposal – but will he be prepared to take a punt in 2020?
One of the Warriors’ top three or four performers in 2019 and among the few players guaranteed their starting spot as the new season approaches.
The former Manly, Penrith and Warrington utility-back’s initial 2018 campaign in Auckland was an erratic affair, shuffled to the wing and bench for a stint on the back of some abominable defensive displays. But his silky attacking play at centre – providing seven try-assists for the NRL-leading David Fusitu’a – was a valuable addition.
Hiku, also a wonderful back-up fullback, was much less of a liability in defence in 2019, while his shift from right centre to the left opened the tryscoring floodgates for the Warriors’ other winger, Ken Maumalo (and contributed to Fusitu’a’s four-pointer drought). The 11-Test Kiwi racked up 10 try-assists, but also proved a damaging ball-runner with six tries, nine line-breaks and 114 metres per game.
Not the strike centre the Warriors are crying out for, but the 27-year-old is a valuable part of the line-up.
— NRL (@NRL) May 11, 2019
NRL RECORD: 125 games – 44 tries, 3 goals (182 points); Centre: 63 games – 16 tries, 1 goal (66 points)
WARRIORS RECORD: 45 games – 10 tries (40 points); Centre: 38 games – 8 tries (32 points)
STATS THAT MATTER
-Hiku ranked third for tries (6), second for try-assists (10), third for line-breaks (9), third for tackle-breaks (62), seventh for offloads (18) and fourth for average metres (114.6) at the Warriors in 2019.
-Hiku scored six tries in 21 games at centre in 2019, compared to two tries in 17 games the previous season.
-Despite being widely applauded for his defensive improvement last year, Hiku’s tackle efficiency was better in 2018 (a career-best 81.62) than 2019 (75.87, the second-best rate of his NRL career).
2020 BEST CASE: Another high-quality season alongside Maumalo on the left edge, chalking up double-digit tallies in the try and try-assists columns to earn a Kiwis recall.
2020 WORST CASE: The defensive lapses return and cancel out his attacking contribution to the side.
— Michael Burgess (@mikeburgess99) August 2, 2019
Another capable fullback-winger-centre in the Hiku mould, Herbert produced arguably the greatest first-grade debut in Warriors history in last year’s gallant Anzac Day loss to Melbourne. The 21-year-old’s terrier-like defence – rather than his highly-regarded attacking qualities – came to the fore against the Storm after he usurped Solomone Kata for the right-centre role.
Herbert scored his maiden NRL try a week later in a home loss to Newcastle, laid on a try in Magic Round against St George Illawarra and racked up 18 points (one try, seven-from-seven goals) in a rout of Penrith.
But injuries stymied his progress, playing just three games over the last 14 rounds. Also had a shocker in a crucial golden point loss to the Panthers at Mt Smart with a bad defensive miss on opposing centre Brent Naden in the dying stages. Herbert landed a clutch penalty goal on fulltime to send that match into extra-time, but the Warriors went down via James Maloney field goal.
Herbert runs good lines and has real potential, but he needs to up his involvement with the ball in hand. Also has to develop his partnership with Fusitu’a after chalking up just one try-assist in his rookie campaign.
WARRIORS RECORD: 8 games – 3 tries, 15 goals (42 points) all centre
STATS THAT MATTER
-After racking up over 100 metres on NRL debut, Herbert did not break triple figures in 2019 and averaged a modest 64 metres across eight rookie-season appearances.
-Herbert made 17 tackles per game at an efficiency rate of 83.6 percent.
-In five Canterbury Cup matches at centre in 2019, Herbert made 95-plus metres on each occasion.
2020 BEST CASE: Gets first crack at the right centre spot and cements it for the duration of the season.
2020 WORST CASE: Someone else gets the jump during the trials, or he fails to make the most of his chance early in the season and is relegated to Canterbury Cup duty.
After leaving his stank all over the right wing on club debut as the Warriors upset Canberra in the final round of 2019, fans are braying for Milne to get a spot in the 17 this season.
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 Warriors call-up, 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.
The NRL just keeps delivering!
This time Taane Milne lays out Josh Hodgson!
📺Catch it live on Fox League NOW! pic.twitter.com/22JASPAYTk
— FOX LEAGUE (@FOXNRL) September 7, 2019
This team may get most value out of Milne as a game-breaking centre given his explosive talent and ability to use the ball. He also shapes as a genuine interchange option providing back-row and backline cover.
But attitude may still be his biggest hurdle. Stephen Kearney has indicated the 24-year-old is not the world’s best trainer – meaning he could be behind the eight-ball for a Round 1 berth unless he dominates in the trials.
NRL RECORD: 19 games – 1 try (4 points); Centre: 8 games – 1 try (4 points)
WARRIORS RECORD: 1 game – 0 points; Centre: N/A
STATS THAT MATTER
-Milne played nine games in the centres for the Warriors’ Canterbury Cup side in 2019. He topped 50 post-contact metres in five of those, racked up four try-assists, three tries, 18 tackle-breaks and 16 offloads.
-Milne also averaged 131.4 metres per game as a Canterbury Cup centre last year, including a remarkable 201 metres in a match against Western Suburbs just prior to his belated NRL promotion.
2020 BEST CASE: Earns a chance to cement a first-grade spot and becomes the X-factor the Warriors’ three-quarter line needs.
2020 WORST CASE: Can’t win Kearney over due to his approach to training and remains a fringe player.
The Warriors’ most experienced back in terms of NRL games, the luckless Beale seems to be nearing the end of the NRL road. A shocking kneecap injury in late-2019 – following on from the broken leg he suffered at the 2017 World Cup just prior to joining the Warriors – looked set to sideline the 11-Test Kiwi until midway through the season.
Incredibly, the club has reported he could be in the frame for a Round 1 return, but it’s uncertain how much of role Beale will play in the Warriors’ NRL campaign. The 29-year-old is steady and unthreatening in a backline that needs some zip and pizzazz.
Beale has been purely an injury or form slump back-up over the last two seasons – a role he looks set to play again in 2020.
— Stuff.co.nz Sport (@NZStuffSport) January 21, 2020
NRL RECORD: 187 games – 48 tries (192 points); Centre: 91 games – 23 tries (92 points)
WARRIORS RECORD: 25 games – 4 tries (16 points); Centre: 15 games – 2 tries (8 points)
STATS THAT MATTER
-In seven NRL appearances at centre in 2019, Beale had no tries or line-breaks and just seven tackle-breaks. He averaged 62.7 metres across those seven games.
2020 BEST CASE: Gets a regular jersey and plays a cool-headed role in a backline that is firing.
2020 WORST CASE: Opportunities don’t present themselves and Beale spends the year in reserve grade.
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.
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.
— Twitter Moments Australia (@MomentsAU) September 7, 2019
WARRIORS RECORD: 5 games – 2 tries (8 points); Centre: 2 games – 2 tries (8 points)
STATS THAT MATTER
-Pompey scored six tries in six NRL and Canterbury Cup starts at centre, but just one try in six games on the wing.
-Pompey averaged over 160 metres per game in four reserve grade starts at centre – including a staggering 286 in one game against Souths.
The dark-horse option up Kearney’s sleeve. Without Hiku and Shaun Johnson on his edge in 2019, the tries and quality ball dried for Fusitu’a – the NRL’s top try-scorer a year earlier – on the right wing. Tohu Harris’ return to the right-side attack should help a bit, but halfback Blake Green simply doesn’t have the zip to create the chances SJ did.
Fusitu’a makes good metres coming off the Warriors’ line, but if he’s not being put into a position to score tries (just five in 16 games last season) his talents are being wasted on the flank.
Kearney put Fusitu’a at right centre when he arrived as coach in 2017. He scored seven tries in the opening nine rounds before ‘Mooks’ opted for the dubious talents of Ayshford and Kata in the No.3 and 4, with ‘Fus’ reverting to the wing.
But he’s a big body, a damaging ball-runner, fast, and can draw a defender and pass the ball. The Warriors may be better served with Fusitu’a at centre and a ‘roving’ style winger – Milne is an obvious candidate – one spot wider.
Kearney’s conservative approach to team selection is probably the biggest obstacle to this left-field plan seeing the light of day in 2020.
WARRIORS RECORD: 96 games – 60 tries (240 points); Centre: 19 games – 12 tries (48 points)
STATS THAT MATTER
-Fusitu’a played seven games at centre under Andrew McFadden in 2015-16, scoring five tries.
-He scored seven tries in 12 games at centre in 2017, Kearney’s first season at the helm.
-In those 12 games at centre in 2017, Fusitu’a averaged 107.5 metres per outing.
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.
Best suited to fullback or five-eighth, Perham appears to be a fair way down the pecking order in both positions. But he spent a six-week stint in the centres for the Warriors’ Canterbury Cup side last year.
An electric ball-runner with sound playmaking instincts, the Taupo-born tyro could be the bolter in the Warriors’ three-quarter line picture if he gets an opportunity in the trials.
STATS THAT MATTER
-Perham averaged 100 metres and 15 tackles in six matches in the centres for the Warriors’ Canterbury Cup side in 2019.