HOW ABOUT THOSE WARRIORS? NRL RD 6 PREVIEW

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Was last week’s victory the start of something tangible, or another tease? Friday’s showdown with Souths should provide a true gauge of where the Warriors are at.

 

Litmus test

South Sydney and the Warriors square off at BankWest Stadium on Friday night both coming off a decent win and both aiming to improve to a 3-3 record. The Rabbitohs (10th) and Warriors (11th) are part of a five-team logjam tied for eighth spot. Both have been underwhelming on the whole in 2020 and both have struggled against decent opposition, but both can use a Round 6 victory as a genuine platform to build their campaign on.

The Warriors gave their fans some respite last weekend, bouncing back from their 26-0 loss to Penrith with an entertaining 37-26 victory over North Queensland. It was a performance that would not have been enough to account for most NRL rivals, however, with four tries coming from kicks against a dreadful Cowboys outfit, while the Warriors were fortunate to not be further punished for their defensive frailties.

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Souths snapped a three-match losing streak by cruising to a 32-12 defeat of lowly Gold Coast, with the relentlessly scrutinised Latrell Mitchell’s starring role from fullback the headline. But it was miles short of a complete collective performance after racing to a 24-6 lead after 25 minutes and enduring a 50-minute try drought.

The Rabbitohs are heavy favourites – and should be on paper. Of the two sides, they have far more improvement in them. But this feels like a contest that could go either way. On form since the restart, the Warriors are in this up to their eyeballs.

Bear in mind Souths were 2018-19 preliminary finalists – they are performing well below expectations. The Warriors are arguably exceeding theirs, however low they may have been.

 

Pay it forward

If there’s one element that has surprised me since the restart, it’s the rousing performances of the Warriors’ forwards.

The engine-room already shaped as a massive problem depth- and quality-wise before Bunty Afoa, Leeson Ah Mau and Jackson Frei succumbed to season-ending injuries and Jazz Tevaga’s multiple ailments delayed his start to 2020 until at least Round 8.

But the Warriors’ band of veterans, rookies and blow-ins has exceeded expectations spectacularly over the past three rounds. They steamrolled big-name, representative-stacked Dragons and Cowboys packs, blotting out Jason Taumalolo in rare style in the latter, and showed plenty of character despite being outplayed by their Panthers counterparts.

There’s no forward in the NRL playing better than Tohu Harris. Adam Blair is putting up the week-to-week form his pay-packet demands. Eliesa Katoa an all-round beast destined for greatness. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown is settling into the starting front-row role with aplomb. King Vuniyayawa has overcome a couple of ordinary outings and proved TWL wrong with some strong showings off the bench. Roosters loan player Poasa Faamausili is a rugged powerhouse who the Warriors simply must hang onto at all costs. Raiders recruit Jack Murchie has done a solid job.

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Who could have envisaged Stephen Kearney could have the luxury to overlook Agnatius Paasi, Isaiah Papali’i and Josh Curran as the restart loomed? And where does Tevaga fit in? It’s a great position to be in – particularly given how bleak the situation appeared just a month ago.

But Souths’ pack represents another challenge for the Warriors. The Rabbitohs have certainly been down in that department with stalwarts John Sutton and Sam Burgess gone, but in the form of Tevita Tatola, Jadyn Su’A, Cameron Murray and Liam Knight in their ranks, there’s potential for the Warriors to find themselves on their heels as they did in the Panthers loss.

The Warriors are living and dying on their ability to get the better of their opposing forwards – it’s unquestionably intrinsically linked to Blake Green and Kodi Nikorima having any sort of influence on the game – and it’s where the underdogs’ chances of rolling the Rabbitohs start and finish.

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The ‘Fus’ conundrum

David Fusitu’a is firming for his first outing since the NRL’s restart, but coach Stephen Kearney remains coy on who he will replace and which positional he will play.

Adam Pompey seems the most likely to make way, despite veteran Gerard Beale’s lack of spark and recent defensive shortcomings. Peta Hiku will obviously be one centre, while Patrick Herbert is virtually guaranteed a spot in the three-quarter line somewhere.

More intriguing is whether Fusitu’a will stay at centre – his spot for Round 1 and 2 – or revert to the wing.

The pre-season shift split opinion among Warriors fans, but I could see the logic. Fusitu’a is an accomplished centre, having scored 12 tries in 19 previous NRL starts heading into 2020, and is much more than just a finisher. And the tries dried up in 2019 with Shaun Johnson and Hiku absent from his right edge; he was starved of possession with Blake Green marshalling the right side – and that will continue to be a problem.

How many times has current right-winger Herbert received the ball on the end of a backline movement this year?

In peak condition – and that’s a bit of an unknown at present – Fusitu’a could be like a Waqa Blake at Parramatta: a big, rangy, skilful game-breaker who can score tries and set them up.

The pros of pushing ‘Fus’ back out to the wing are he’s arguably the best winger in the league defensively under the high ball and is a better target for attacking kicks than Herbert. But there’s plenty for Kearney to weigh up.

 

Right-side woes

The high-scoring, entertaining nature of the win over the Cowboys last week papered over some alarming defensive cracks. The Warriors were abysmal at times without the ball – better teams would have made them pay even more than a ragtag Cowboys side did.

The most glaring shortcomings came of the right edge, where Blake Green and Gerard Beale were all at sea. Jack Murchie was also found wanting at times but needs greater guidance from his vastly experienced teammates.

Debutant Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow had a field day after switching to fullback, laying on a try in each half as Green and Beale floundered. A repeat of that defensive incompetence will be ruthlessly exposed by the likes of Cody Walker and a revitalised Latrell Mitchell – with outside-backs Braidon Burns and Alex Johnston more than capable of cashing in.

This week’s Fonzie Talks Warriors podcast breaks down their right-side struggles in fantastic detail. Give it a listen…hopefully Stephen Kearney does too.

 

No.1 battle

The standout individual duel at BankWest Stadium promises to be between two electric former Roosters: Latrell Mitchell and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

After a rollercoaster start to life in the South Sydney No.1 jumper – on and off the paddock – Mitchell enjoyed a breakout game against the Titans, scoring try and laying on three others. But he still only tallied 62 running metres, while his season-high is a modest 136 metres.

Unsurprisingly, RTS has been a workhorse, leading the NRL for total running metres and averaging 210 per game. His grunt work and clean-up play in the back-field has been typically invaluable…but the disconnect at the other end of the park, where the skipper has rarely had an impact on attack in 2020.

Mitchell’s cohesion with halves Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker is improving rapidly. Tuivasa-Sheck is struggling to link up with Green and Nikorima. That discrepancy could be a crucial factor in this match.

 

The Rabbitohs’ bunnies

South Sydney has been a bogey team for the Warriors since 2012, with the Rabbitohs winning nine of 10 encounters. The only positive result for the Warriors during that time was a momentous 32-20 victory in Perth in the opening round of 2018.

Even more worryingly, seven of Souths’ last eight wins over the Warriors were by margins of 16 points or more.

The Warriors have managed to extinguish most of their multitude of long-running hoodoos in recent years – most notably turning the tables on their ultimate bogey side, St George Illawarra – but overcoming the men in myrtle and cardinal again would be a nice feather in Stephen Kearney’s hoodoo-busting cap.

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Master and former apprentice

Wayne Bennett’s mentorship was integral to a 36-year-old Stephen Kearney coaching New Zealand to a stunning triumph in the 2008 World Cup. Kearney later spent two highly successful seasons as an assistant on Bennett’s Brisbane Broncos staff in 2015-16.

This Friday the pair square off as NRL head coaches for the 10th time. Given the quality of the teams Bennet has coached – and the comparative minnow status of most of the sides under Kearney’s charge – it may surprise some to learn that ‘Mooks’ boasts two wins and a draw against the old master.

Rookie coach Kearney’s battling Parramatta side managed a 14-all draw with the Bennett-coached defending premiers St George Illawarra in 2011 – atoning for a 30-0 loss to the Dragons five weeks earlier. The following season, the Eels suffered two eight-point defeats to the Knights, Bennett’s new club.

Out of the head coaching game for the next four years, Kearney enjoyed wins over Bennett’s Broncos in 2017 and ’18. But the ledger is 2-0 in the old master’s favour since he took over at Souths in 2019.

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