The NRL returns this week after a two-month hiatus – and the Warriors kick off Super Saturday with a Gosford showdown against fellow 0-2 outfit St George Illawarra Dragons.
Team List Bluesday
Stephen Kearney has ruined many a Tuesday with conservative and/or baffling team selections, but this week’s line-up was right up there in the facepalm stakes for the majority of Warriors fans.
Kodi Nikorima’s return to five-eighth at Chanel Harris-Tavita’s expense was the major shock. Gerard Beale filling the gap at centre will stymie an attack that is already in all sorts in 2020. Lachlan Burr’s selection at prop is an invitation for the Dragons to monster the Warriors in the middle – though Jamayne Taunoa-Brown’s promotion to the starting side is a positive move.
Karl Lawton can certainly add something off the bench but Kearney’s rotation policy with the so far underwhelming Wayde Egan will be the key factor there.
Isaiah Papali’i’s return to the second-row with crack rookie Eliesa Katoa moving back to the bench is perhaps the most galling call of all, while it’s hard to fathom how newcomer King Vuniyayawa retained a bench spot ahead of Josh Curran and recent transfer Jack Murchie.
What these decisions were based on remains unclear – and anything could have happened in the two months the NRL has been on hiatus. But it’s up to the players contentiously picked to prove the coach right.
‘Mary’ gets contrary
In direct contrast to Kearney, under-pressure St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor certainly hasn’t played favourites with his team. Former Test forward Trent Merrin has missed a spot in the 17, while Issac Luke and Tim Lafai have been left out of the 21 altogether.
‘Mary’ has put his faith in returning skipper Cameron McInnes playing the full 80 minutes at hooker, while Brayden Wiliame and Zac Lomax have won the ultra-contentious centre spots, and Matt Dufty keeps the No.1 jersey.
Imagine Trent Merrin not being good enough for a start at the dragons
— The Fifi’s Knees (@Danger_Anger) May 26, 2020
Back to reality
There’s no questioning the Warriors are in a tough and uncertain situation, disadvantaged far more than any other team in the NRL. The game collectively should be – and evidently is – grateful for the sacrifices they are making.
But let’s get some perspective. Hundreds have lost their jobs in rugby league over the past couple of months. Virtually all players below NRL level are facing the prospect of no footy in 2020. Many of my colleagues in the media, who have made an enormous contribution to the game over many years, have been made redundant. Personally, my rugby league-related workload has been decimated – and I feel like one of the lucky ones.
There’s plenty for the Warriors to be thankful for.
The traditionally hard-marking panel on NRL360 suggested the club’s predicament is a virtual free pass to 2021 for anyone whose job may have otherwise been on the line. But they’re still a footy team there to play footy. If the Warriors lean on their handicap as an excuse on the field – and I’m not saying they will, but many seem to be willing to do that on their behalf already – I’ll start whittling a wooden spoon now.
Let’s hope it has a galvanising effect instead, inspiring one of the great chapters in Warriors history.
Heat on Nikorima, Egan
The Warriors amassed a total of just six points in their two losses to Newcastle and Canberra so far this season. It was a paltry return after the players approached Stephen Kearney during the off-season about having more input in the direction of the offence.
The reins were supposedly set to be loosened, reverting to more adlib-friendly, traditional Warriors style with the ball in hand. What they serve up in the opening 160 minutes of the premiership was about as aimless and unimaginative as we’ve ever seen from the club.
The Warriors brass – and many fans – didn’t think much of TWL’s article lambasting their insipid showing at the Nines. But everything we’ve seen since attack-wise has flowed on from the danger signs we saw during that brief Perth campaign.
The onus this weekend is on Kodi Nikorima and Wayde Egan. Nikorima has the potential to be the spark the Warriors need, but he can’t anchor himself to a narrow channel on the left edge – he needs to roam.
Egan arrived with big wraps, even earning comparisons with Cameron Smith for his footy smarts. Blake Ayshford claimed on Warriors TV that the team’s attack is set to focus around the hooker recruit – but he’s going to have to make more than the 15 running metres he’s currently averaging.
It simply can’t be left to Blake Green to be the focal point.
On the other side of the fence, no players on the field will be under more scrutiny than the Dragons’ million-dollar halves Ben Hunt and Corey Norman. The Dragons defence also leaked 56 points cominbed against the Tigers and Panthers, which may provide the Warriors with a leg up on Saturday.
The Dragons’ forwards have the edge on their Warriors counterparts in the size department, but more importantly they are light years in front in terms of impact, creativity and game-breaking ability.
Paul Vaughan, Tariq Sims, Tyson Frizell and James Graham are all capable of changing the course of a match with second-phase play, a tackle-busting run on a ferocious hit. It’s hard to see where those qualities come from in a Warriors engine-room loaded with honest toilers.
Tohu Harris and Katoa give the Warriors some forward X-factor, but the best-case scenario would appear to be matching the Saints – it’s hard to remember the last time the Warriors pack dominated their opponents.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) May 26, 2020
Turning the tide
St George Illawarra was the Warriors’ undisputed bogey team. From 1999 to 2017, the Warriors won just five of 27 clashes. Only once in 14 did the Auckland-based outfit taste victory against the Red V between 2008 and ’17.
But the rivalry has swung in the past couple of seasons – the Warriors are currently on a three-match winning streak.
A pair of gutsy wins in 2018 to rank alongside the best in the club’s history – including the end of a 22-year drought in Wollongong – was followed by a Magic Round upset last season, rallying from 18-6 down at halftime to win 30-18.
Encouragingly, Kodi Nikorima starred on club debut in the latter match while Karl Lawton produced a stunning 20-minute cameo off the bench.
— NRL (@NRL) May 11, 2019
Gosford and innuendo
The Warriors have been to Central Coast Stadium three times for two wins. They beat Northern Eagles in 2001, lost a tough encounter with Manly in 2013 and pulled off a brilliant golden point result against Sydney Roosters in 2016 with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck the hero against his former team.
The Dragons have played just once in Gosford – way back in 2000, when they lost fellow joint venture the Eagles 21-20.
One of the most picturesque venues in rugby league, the Warriors will be aiming to make the palm tree-laden Central Coast Stadium a fertile home away from home this season.