TAB PRESENTS: HOW ABOUT THOSE WARRIORS? – ROUND 1 PREVIEW

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The maligned New Zealand Warriors come into NRL season 2020 off a low base, though outwardly they are projecting a steely determination to stick it up the doomsayers. In conjunction with TAB, This Warriors Life’s WILL EVANS unpacks the Warriors’ daunting first-up assignment in Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.

 

Not-so-great expectations

The Warriors have never picked up the wooden spoon, despite their reputation as chronic underachievers. But predictions of a historic last-place finish are flooding in from across the Tasman – and even among the Warriors’ fanbase.

A watershed return to the finals in 2018 – finishing just one win behind the minor premiers – was washed away in a dismal 2019 campaign, landing 13th for the third time in five seasons on the back of Shaun Johnson’s controversial departure.

Striking out repeatedly in the player market, with only unwanted Penrith hooker Wayde Egan coming on board, sees optimism around the Warriors at an all-time low. The club is on the third line of wooden spoon betting at $6, with only Gold Coast and Canterbury more heavily favoured.

A pack severely lacking in size, impact and variety does not bode well. The Warriors’ overreliance on champion fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s class is crippling, but understandable.

But the team is talking a good game heading into 2020. Under-pressure coach Stephen Kearney seems more willing to make brave selection calls and abandon a mind-numbingly stagnant and structured attacking game-plan.

The Warriors have thrived previously when unburdened by suffocating expectation. But their current roster lacks the potential and depth of previous incarnations. It’s hopeful diehard supporters rather than savvy punters who are throwing down on the $3.50 for the Warriors’ to reach the Top 8 for just the second time in nine seasons, while few will be approaching their $36 premiership price with any confidence.


Reversing the Round 1 trend

Waiting all summer for the Warriors’ first game of the season used to be the equivalent of looking at your present under the Christmas tree for weeks on end full of hope and unwrapping a turnip on December 25.

They lost seven straight Round 1 games from 2010-16 – including five against teams who missed the previous year’s finals and two against eventual wooden spooners. But the Warriors have now saluted in three straight season-opening fixtures: a drought-breaker against Newcastle in 2017; a hoodoo-busting win over Souths in Perth in 2018; and a 40-6 demolition of Canterbury last year.

Whether that’s enough to get behind the Warriors as $2.65 underdogs on the road this Saturday is debatable, however.

The Knights, $1.46 favourites, are 6-4 in Round 1 matches over the past decade, snaring tight home wins over Manly and Cronulla in the past two campaigns.

CHT gets the keys

Warriors fans’ pleas for change and adventure were answered via the traditionally conservative Stephen Kearney’s call to name Chanel Harris-Tavita at five-eighth ahead of Kiwi international Kodi Nikorima.

Given Blake Green’s limitations and Nikorima’s refusal to take any responsibility for steering the Warriors around the park, the plucky youngster was the easily the best option for the No.6 jersey. CHT brings attacking invention and competitive fire to a line-up lacking in both.

He’s also likely to get the goalkicking duties, though don’t get too excited about the $81 for Harris-Tavita to be the NRL’s top pointscorer in 2020.

Further encouraging signs came in the form of Kearney’s willingness to hand debuts to impressive young forwards Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Eliesa Katoa. Second-rower Katoa, in particular, is an outstanding prospect – and $5.50 to mark his NRL call-up with a try.

But with the Warriors’ already-thin engine-room contingent rocked by injuries to Bunty Afoa, Jazz Tevaga, Agnatius Paasi and Josh Curran, plus Sam Lisone’s late move to the Titans, the newcomers face an onerous task against a big-name Newcastle pack.

NEW DAWN? CHT HANDED THE KEYS, TWO TO DEBUT IN ROUND 1

Oh captain, my captain

Team List Tuesday provided another glimmer of hope with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck named to lead the side in Newcastle, despite being tipped to miss Round 1 with a foot complaint.

If the inspirational skipper is ruled out, Peta Hiku will almost certainly move to fullback with Hayze Perham or Taane Milne to come into the backline. Hiku’s fill-in performances in the past have been superb, winning two from two in 2018 and starring in a gallant Anzac Day loss last year.

Despite his club’s lowly standing, 2018 winner RTS is among the top-10 contenders for the Dally M Medal at $26. He finished equal-fifth last year in a team that won just nine games.

Kearney has pledged to ease Tuivasa-Sheck’s workload coming out of the Warriors’ end, allowing him to feature more prominently near the opposition goal-line. He has scored a modest 21 tries in 76 games for the Warriors, but is a $2.40 Anytime Tryscorer chance if he takes the field in Newcastle.

Making a Fus

The call to switch David Fusitu’a – one of the NRL’s preeminent finishers – from wing to centre has split opinion. The flying ‘Fus’ was the competition’s top try-scorer in 2018 with a club-record-equalling 23 meat pies from 23 games.

But the four-pointers dried up in an injury-hampered 2019 campaign, Fusitu’a crossing just five times in 16 games after Shaun Johnson’s exit and Peta Hiku’s move to left centre. Blake Green is simply too slow to create the half-chances and overlaps for Fusitu’a that Johnson did. He’s $34 to return to the top of the tryscoring pile in 2020 from his new position.

An imposing, big body at centre could transform the Warriors’ backline, which has fielded largely pedestrian centre combinations. Fusitu’a boasts 12 tries in 19 NRL starts at centre – including a hat-trick in the Warriors’ season-opening win over the Knights in 2017. He’s great value as a $3 Anytime Tryscorer this weekend and a juicy $11 to score two or more tries, which he has managed three times as an NRL centre.

Welcome to my Knightmare

The Warriors have won six of their last eight against Newcastle, making hay during the Knights’ run of three straight wooden spoons. Courtesy of that recent upturn, the Knights are one of just four current clubs the Warriors boast a winning percentage of better than 50 percent against – the overall ledger sits 21-1-19. The Knights, underachieving 11th-place finishers in 2018-19, are 10-8 at home all-time against the Warriors.

Honours were shared last year. The Knights scored the last three tries of the match in a 36-18 victory at Mt Smart with Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga running riot. The Warriors overcame several refereeing howlers to edge an Origin-depleted line-up 24-20 in Newcastle.

Five of the teams’ last seven encounters were decided by margins of 16 points or more. The Knights are $2.63 to blow the Warriors out by 13+, while there’s $7 on offer for the Warriors to do the same.

THE RIVALRY: WARRIORS V KNIGHTS

Ken you believe it?

Declaring Ken Maumalo would become the Warriors’ second-best player at the start of 2018 would have booked you a one-way ticket to a padded cell. But the hulking winger was a contender for the NRL’s unofficial ‘most improved player’ gong in both 2018 and ’19.

Last year, metre-eating Big Ken belatedly added tryscoring strike to his kitbag. After scoring just 14 tries from 64 games in his first four seasons, Maumalo blazed in for 17 touchdowns – 10 more than his nearest teammate. The 2019 Dally M Winger of the Year statuette now sits on his mantelpiece.

While a somewhat limited attacking winger, $26 about Maumalo to top the NRL’s try charts in 2020 is not as crazy as it sounds given he is the Warriors’ go-to strike weapon out wide.

Maumalo was the First Tryscorer in five matches last year and will arrive in Newcastle as a $9 chance in that market. Meanwhile, with five doubles in 2019 – including at McDonald Jones Stadium, where a Bunker bungle robbed him of a hat-trick – Maumalo is a tantalising $4.50 to score two of more tries against the Knights.

 

 

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