CRUNCH TIME FOR OFF-CONTRACT WARRIORS

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Against the odds, the NRL restart is just a week away. The Warriors have been justifiably feted for their sacrifices to allow the premiership to resume, holing up in Tamworth and now Gosford with no certainty about when they can see their families again and even less about when they will get to go home.

But the game and the club must go on. There’s pertinent business and personnel decisions to be made – tough calls that are arguably even more important due to the financial squeeze put on every organisation in rugby league by the pandemic.

There’s 12 Warriors top-liners coming off-contract at the end of 2020 (including Adam Blair, who has an option in his favour for next year) and the club has already made some forceful moves in the player market for next year.

Tongan Test start Ben Murdoch-Masila has been lured back from Super League, while impressive Cronulla rookie Toby Rudolf has reportedly inked a deal to move to Auckland. Outstanding NRL newcomer Eliesa Katoa has also signed an extension to the end of 2024. Fringe Raiders back-rower Jack Murchie has also joined the Warriors on a mid-season transfer this week. All four developments put enormous pressure on the Warriors forwards coming to the end of their current deals.

Most of the off-contract Warriors will be sweating on opportunities to impress – particularly given the NSW Cup is on hiatus – and a form upswing to clinch an extension. Three of those players are on the long-term injured list.

GERARD BEALE

A Kiwis World Cup squad member and just 12 months removed from a grand final win with Cronulla when he arrived at the Warriors, Gerard Beale – one of the game’s real nice guys – has endured a trying two and a bit years in Auckland.

A broken leg suffered in New Zealand’s first 2017 RLWC game delayed the start of his Warriors tenure, eventually getting a top-grade opportunity with the club in Round 11 of the watershed 2018 campaign.

Beale has played 25 NRL games for the Warriors to date, scoring just four tries. But aside from a five-round stretch when Peta Hiku was struggling for form in 2018, he has had to rely on injuries to get a run. The 29-year-old’s 2019 campaign ended early when he suffered a shocking kneecap injury against the Roosters at the SCG.

A sound defensive player with few mistakes in his game, Beale lacks the punch the Warriors desperately need out wide. He is a solid back-up but little more.

Injuries to Taane Milne and Adam Keighran, along with the initial unavailability of David Fusitu’a, means Beale will probably get spot in next week’s Round 3 return – though there are several more dynamic options at Stephen Kearney’s disposal.

A tough call potentially looms for the Warriors at some point.

VERDICT: Worth keeping around on a reduced deal for depth and his experience in the group, but the 12-season veteran deserves to finish with a decent payday and Super League may be a better fit for Beale from 2021.

ADAM BLAIR

The record-breaking veteran is in the final year of his three-year deal, but that’s almost certain to be a moot point because he has an option for 2021 in his favour.

Blair is arguably the most polarising Warrior of all time. In fact, that may be inaccurate because the overwhelming majority of the club’s fans are off the 34-year-old, chiefly because his performances are not commensurate with his salary – reported at the time of signing to be in the vicinity of $600,000 per year.

It’s difficult to reconcile Blair the gentle family man, the endearing character we see talking to his pals on Warriors TV and the passionate, impactful leader on show for the Māori All Stars, with the Blair who is dismissive of media types to the point of arrogance and puts in middling, often ill-disciplined performances for the Warriors most weeks – and shrugs them off as acceptable.

Blair has thrived as part of forward packs that boast other top-shelf players – Melbourne, Brisbane and to a lesser extent his first year at the Warriors. He’s come under massive scrutiny as the identified main man in the engine room, as evidenced by his maligned stint at Wests Tigers and in 2019 with the regressing Warriors.

If what those within the camp say is to be believed, his guidance is a valuable asset. He does the ‘one-percenters’. Blair is also incredibly durable; besides becoming just the second player to break the 50-Test barrier for the Kiwis last year and setting a new mark for most first-grade appearances by a non-Australian earlier this season, he has also played 22-plus games in the past 12 straight seasons.

But the bottom line is the Warriors overpaid.

VERDICT: Unlikely to be in demand at 35 years of age – certainly not on the sort of coin he is on now – and would be crazy to give up his Warriors option for 2021, unless he wants to hang up the boots. A big year under tough circumstances in 2020 would make Blair staying considerably more palatable for the supporter base.

LACHLAN BURR

Former Gold Coast and Canterbury forward Burr was on the scrapheap before being offered a lifeline by the Warriors – and he proved one of the real bargain buys of 2019. The journeyman played all but one game for the Warriors – including 15 run-on appearances – and was one of an underperforming pack’s more reliable performers.

The 27-year-old was shuffled to prop for the opening two rounds of 2020, not a good a fit for the lightweight forward. But he’s likely to have to fill in up front on the reg thanks to the Warriors’ shocking injury toll.

Given the Warriors’ aggressive recruiting in the middle forward department, Burr is one player in need of a strong campaign.

VERDICT: A significant upgrade would seem unlikely and may be more in demand elsewhere.

JACKSON FREI

After getting a grounding in the Roosters’ junior system, Brisbane-born prop Frei was a solid performer in Canterbury Cup for the Warriors in 2019.

But the towering tyro suffered a season-ending knee injury in the early stages of the Warriors’ first NRL trial this year – kick-starting the club’s astounding run of bad luck in the front-row department.

VERDICT: Plenty of potential at just 22 years of age but, cruelly, he may be surplus to requirements without the chance to impress in 2020 and the likes of Rudolf coming on board.

BLAKE GREEN

The most difficult and important roster decision confronting the Warriors ahead of 2021.

Green has proved an outstanding five-eighth foil for blue-chip No.7s Cooper Cronk, Daly Cherry-Evans and, in his first season at the Warriors, Shaun Johnson. But the veteran struggled with the chief playmaker and director responsibilities playing alongside rookies and fill-ins during 2019.

It didn’t help that the Warriors’ pack was getting steamrolled most weeks, but the limitations of Green’s kicking game and his lack of speed was glaring, despite a couple of memorable match-winning hands.

A good bloke and probably the best media talent at the Warriors, the tenacious and wily Green has plenty of upside and seems happy in Auckland. But his future at the club could depend on Chanel Harris-Tavita’s progress – the Warriors need a dominant attacking half…and Green isn’t it.

VERDICT: Gut feeling is the Warriors will offer the popular Green – who turns 34 in September – another year given the dearth of alternatives in the player market.

PATRICK HERBERT

Arrived from the Dragons’ lower grades in 2019 and produced arguably the finest debut ever by a Warriors player in the undermanned side’s heroic Anzac Day defeat in Melbourne.

The centre’s appeal waned somewhat from that point and injuries intervened, restricting him to just eight rookie-season appearances.

Herbert beat out some hot competition to snare the retrenched David Fusitu’a’s wing spot in Round 1 this year and was one of the Warriors’ best in a dismal loss at Newcastle. His lack of involvement with the ball was one of his drawbacks last year but that certainly wasn’t an issue in a wholehearted performance on the flank against the Knights.

The 23-year-old missed Round 2 to return home and be with his partner and newborn child, but he seems assured of a starting spot next week.

VERDICT: Should pick up another deal – certainly has the potential to develop into a quality first-grader.

PETA HIKU

The versatile Kiwi international had an up-and-down 2018 introduction to the Warriors, with his silky attacking skills often overshadowed by his defensive shortcomings. But a switch to left centre last year saw Hiku become one of the Warriors’ best and most consistent performers – reflected by his third-place finish behind Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Ken Maumalo in This Warriors Life’s Player of the Year award standings.

Hiku’s best position is arguably fullback – few clubs would boast a better back-up No.1 in their ranks than the 27-year-old and he has played some fabulous hands filling in for RTS.

Centre has been a weak spot for the Warriors for almost a decade and Hiku is comfortably the club’s best in that position.

VERDICT: Though he recently welcomed his second child into the world in Auckland, wife Lisa’s family lives in Sydney so a return across the ditch isn’t out of the question if the terms suit. But the Warriors will surely make re-signing Hiku a priority.

ADAM KEIGHRAN

The gloss of a charmed debut against Canterbury in Round 1 of 2019 soon wore off for Keighran, dumped in favour of Chanel Harris-Tavita just three weeks later. He provided solid value as dummy-half cover in three late-season interchange appearances, while his versatility rating went up a notch when he was arguably the Warriors’ most dangerous ball-runner at centre in Round 2 against the Raiders this season.

Keighran joined the Warriors’ long-term injured brigade this week in a bitter blow, forced to undergo knee surgery. A late-season return is the best-case scenario for the 23-year-old.

Another problem is the Warriors are overrun with utility types, while his prospects of forging a permanent starting role in the halves or at centre or hooker appear slim.

VERDICT: A good player to have in the back pocket, but Keighran may not be content as a depth player.

TAANE MILNE

The wayward Milne was given a chance by the Warriors last year, starring in reserve grade before showing what he is capable of with a barnstorming display in his first top-grade outing for the club – a final-round upset of Canberra.

A capable wing, centre or second-rower, Milne shaped as a genuine chance of becoming a key member of the Warriors’ 17 in 2020. But after missing a spot for Round 1, he did his knee in the NSW Cup clash with the Knights and is gone for the year.

VERDICT: Milne’s fate rests with the Warriors’ brass. But unless some quality outside-backs come on the market, he’s worth giving another shot on a modest contract.

ISAIAH PAPALI’I

Seemingly earmarked for long-serving clubman status and, according to some supposedly in the know, the Warriors’ captaincy, Papali’i has managed to split opinion among fans after a patchy 2019 campaign.

The 21-year-old was superb throughout 2018 and was rewarded with a New Zealand Test debut. But despite regularly topping the tackle count last year, Papali’i struggled for consistency and could easily have spent a spell in reserve grade given the calibre of Warriors’ back-rowers gagging for an opportunity.

Instead, Papali’i missed just one game – in Round 1, courtesy of a club-imposed ban after a DUI – and captained the club during its abhorrent Nines campaign in Perth three months ago. Fairly anonymous in the opening two rounds despite characteristically racking up big numbers.

VERDICT: A favourite of Kearney’s and highly rated at the club, it’s hard to see the Warriors not tying him up soon or another club entering the picture. The best-case result for sceptical fans is that the Warriors don’t overpay.

LEIVAHA PULU

The former Titan looked a fine buy after cementing a second-row spot during the Warriors’ unprecedented start to 2018. But injury stunted Pulu’s progress and he made his return via the bench, before missing the 17 for the club’s first finals match in seven years.

Out of favour in 2019 despite the Warriors pack’s glaring lack of variety and mobility, the skilful Pulu played less than half a game in the top grade.

He’s with the extended squad in Australia but appears to have been leapfrogged in the back-row pecking order by newcomers Eliesa Katoa, Josh Curran and King Vuniyayawa, though the injury crisis in the middle forward department could see Pulu get the odd opportunity.

VERDICT: Seems the most likely to make way for the arrival of Murdoch-Masila and Rudolf.

NATHANIEL ROACHE

No one is doubting Nathaniel Roache’s talent. No one is questioning his versatility or his value to the Warriors when fit. No one is querying whether the modern-day Adonis would be on the cover of the Men of League calendar every year if they were still being made.

But Roache’s is quite simply one of the unluckiest players in the game when it comes to injury.

A first-choice player virtually since making his NRL debut in the opening round of 2016, the 24-year-old has chalked up just 26 games in the top flight. He missed all of 2018 with a back injury then endured multiple setbacks in 2019 before ultimately suffering a torn ACL and undergoing a reconstruction.

The regard in which Roache is still held at the Warriors is illustrated by the fact they opted to restart their isolation period in Australia when arrived in Tamworth a few days after the squad. He’s an attractive option to have in a team lacking spark, but the Warriors are flush with utilities – Karl Lawton and Kodi Nikorima are in Auckland until at least the end of 2021 – and whether his body can hold up lingers as a massive question mark.

VERDICT: It would be an agonising call to release the luckless Roache. Another long-term injury may take the decision out of the club’s hands. Conversely, if he plays regular NRL in 2020 and gets through unscathed, the Warriors will gladly get the chequebook out.

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