The result was secondary to the performance – and a host of yet-to-debut Warriors put their hand up to play a role in the club’s NRL campaign with strong showings in an 18-16 trial defeat to Melbourne in Palmerston North.
The seesawing clash wasn’t overly pretty for the most part – trials rarely are – but it was entertaining as far as pre-season fixtures go and provided plenty for Warriors fans to get excited about, somewhat making up for a lacklustre Nines effort.
And if form is going to be Stephen Kearney’s primary selection barometer in 2020, the likes of Eliesa Katoa, Edward Kosi, Setu Tu, Phillip Makatoa and Preston Riki have to be considered genuine first-grade hopes.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
Half/fullback Paul Turner and towering front-rower Jackson Frei made poor starts to their respective bids for an NRL debut with early drops.
The Warriors’ goal-line defence failed its first genuine test – not aided by David Fusitu’a sprinting out of the line at right centre – as the Storm’s wantaway hooker Harry Grant dotted down in the 12th minute from a Tom Eisenhuth offload.
Soon after the restart, Frei’s afternoon ended via a leg injury after wearing a ferocious shot from ex-Warriors prop Albert Vete. But the Warriors got on the board a couple of plays later, forward Adam Tuimavave-Gerard busting a tackle to send livewire Turner over in the corner.
The breakthrough gave the young Warriors outfit a spring in their step: Highly promising rookie second-rower Eliesa Katoa bent the Storm’s defensive line back with every hearty carry; Fusitu’a’s size and power was creating problems on the fringes; Hayze Perham chimed in from fullback nicely.
Chanel Harris-Tavita capitalised on that momentum to muscle over for an impressive solo try under the posts – a handy highlight reel moment in his first proper outing since breaking his arm in Round 24 last year as he duels with Kodi Nikorima for the No.6 jumper.
A Tom Ale error and a penalty against King Vuniyayawa allowed the Storm to hit back five minutes after the quarter-time break through journeyman Kiwi Sandor Earl.
Melbourne recruit Brenko Lee exposed dismal arm-grabbing defence from Selestino Ravutaumada, Harris-Tavita and Isaiah Vagana (son of Warriors great Joe), before sending Cooper Johns (son of Newcastle icon Matthew) away to finish off a long-range try and put the Storm back in front three minutes before halftime.
The Warriors were full of running and offloading early in the second half. A thrilling 50-metre movement involving brilliant passes from Vuniyayawa, Preston Riki, Adam Keighran, Rocco Berry and trial standout Edward Kosi almost brought about a try.
The hit-back came in the 53rd minute, with Harris-Tavita and Katoa combining beautifully for winger Setu Tu – who had made a major impact after entering the fray – to stroll in for a 16-14 lead.
The Storm reclaimed the scoreboard advantage in the 72nd minute, however, through second-rower Chris Lewis.
The Warriors had a big chance to snatch a late victory but coughed up the ball near the Storm’s line with time almost up.
10 THINGS TWL LEARNED
1. ‘Fus’ set for centre shift
Playing the first quarter at right centre, prolific wing try-scorer David Fusitu’a looked very good closer to the action making several strong carries. We’ve thrown our support behind Stephen Kearney putting ‘Fus” big body in one spot after catching on a cold on the flank in 2019 – and the player himself revealed that’s exactly what’s likely to happen this season (as well as dropping a live TV F-bomb).
David Fusitu’a makes first major NRL interview gaffe of 2020 then reveals big positional change pic.twitter.com/vN4FJF6wGd
— This Warriors Life (@thiswarriorslyf) February 22, 2020
Picking up a minor leg complaint, the Tongan Test star took no further part in the trial after making a solid statement early on.
2. Chanel lays down challenge to Kodi
The race for the No.6 jumper is neck-and-neck. It has to come to down to form – and Chanel Harris-Tavita put his best foot forward in his first significant outing since suffering a broken arm late in his 2019 Warriors Rookie of the Year campaign.
CHT scored a great first-half try, laid on another in the second and generally kicked and directed well. But his involvement was probably the key feature of a sound display, an area five-eighth rival Kodi Nikorima regularly fell down last year. Nikorima will certainly need to show something in the playmaking role for the Maori All Stars or next week against Wests Tigers to oust Harris-Tavita for Round 1.
3. Katoa a big Round 1 chance
There was arguably no more impressive player on the field than 20-year-old second-rower Eliesa Katoa. Big, mobile and physical, the youngster was prominent on both sides of the ball and proved he has a bit of skill, running off Harris-Tavita before putting Setu Tu over.
Born in Tonga and arriving in New Zealand in 2017, Katoa only made his Jersey Flegg debut midway through last season but may skip Canterbury Cup altogether on the strength of his display in Palmerston North. Bunty Afoa’s ACL injury has left a spot in the Warriors’ top-grade 17 wide open, and with Adam Blair and Isaiah Papali’i arguably better suited to the middle, Katoa – who is on a development contract this year – could be a shock starter in Newcastle next month.
4. No.9 battle wide open
Wayde Egan’s first outing in Warriors colours was the headliner of this trial but he only took the field in the third quarter and was solid but understated. Adam Keighran had the starting dummy-half duties but was stilted and sloppy, while Karl Lawton added noticeable impact and zip to the role during the second quarter.
With the ‘loser’ in the Chanel-Kodi No.6 battle almost certain to get a bench spot, there is only one place available in Kearney’s side for the aforementioned trio – plus Nate Roache when he’s fit.
The unforeseen wildcard in the hooker picture may be Temple Kalepo, who only turned 20 last weekend. He made the most of his chance in the final 20 minutes with a lively outing. Bigger than the Warriors’ other No.9 options, Kalepo looks a dynamic type with good speed and footy nous.
5. Kosi shaping as outside-back bolter…
If Fusitu’a is to play centre this year and Kearney wants a like-for-like replacement on the wing, the rangy Edward Kosi is custom-made for the job.
Another to turn 20 just last week, Kosi has serious wheels, good size and made a number of tremendous runs.
6. …but Setu Tu also right in the mix
As Kosi’s eye-catching moments wound down, Setu Tu took over as the second-half standout in the three-quarter line.
The wiry 22-year-old proved almost impossible for the Storm to grasp at first attempt, carving off a succession of searching runs, finishing off a try and making some good clean-up plays at the back.
Tu’s not the biggest, but he plays above his weight. After scoring 15 tries in as many Canterbury Cup appearances last year, he could be headed for the big time in 2020.
Meanwhile, Patrick Herbert was barely sighted after starting on the wing, and fleet-footed Fijian Selestino Ravutaumada looks more Eparama Navale than Semi Radradra at this stage.
Eparama Navale slams it down for the Parramatta Eels.
All the talk over the last few seasons about bad Refereeing.
Have a look at the play the ball in the lead up to this try. And the Ref lets it go.
Parramatta vs Wests 1997#parramattaeels #eels #try #arl #classic pic.twitter.com/HU26QXPx72
— Rugby League Best Tries Hits and Biffs (@NBiffs) December 30, 2018
7. Turner: electric and erratic
As he demonstrated at the Nines, Paul Turner is a born game-breaker. But he’s also got a mistake in him.
In his defence, Turner was shuffled around the team sheet during the trial, but finishing off the first try and making a couple of exciting runs couldn’t cancel the three or four glaring handling errors he made.
A work in progress.
8. Tyro forwards push claims…
Katoa was at the head of the class, but fellow untried forwards Phillip Makatoa, Preston Riki, Adam Tuimavave-Gerard, Tom Ale and Isaiah Vagana all made a real impression on the match. Kearney continually turned to the likes of Chris Satae, Ligi Sao and Sam Lisone for engine-room reinforcement in 2019, but he’s got some other options up his sleeve this year on the strength of this trial.
9. …but front-row curse won’t relent
With Bunty Afoa’s season-ending injury leaving a giant hole up front and Sam Lisone gaining a release to join the Titans as of today, the Warriors cannot afford more hits to their prop stocks. Starting front-rower Jackson Frei had a golden chance to impress snatched away from him via a knee injury only 10 minutes into the match. The super-promising Makatoa was also helped from the field in the final quarter, though his leg ailment appeared less serious.
10. Spare parts Keighran
Today was a big opportunity for Adam Keighran to force Kearney’s hand. The hooker spot is wide-open enough for the utility to put his name at the forefront of the conversation, while he is a viable option in the 17 due to his versatility. But most of his work – including some dusty passing from dummy-half and aimless kicking on the last when in the halves – was several levels below what the NRL demands.
Good to have in the squad depth-wise, but it’s hard to see Keighran climbing past CHT, Nikorima, Lawton, Egan, Roache et al in the pecking order.
Edged out late by the Storm in Palmerston North
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) February 22, 2020