However the Warriors’ daunting assignment against Melbourne Storm plays out, it’s destined to be a memorable affair following last weekend’s bombshell coaching announcement.
Uncertain new era
The result against Melbourne on Friday almost feels inconsequential in the wake of Stephen Kearney’s shock/callous/somewhat-necessary-but-maybe-not-right-now sacking. Warriors fans – and indeed the entire rugby league fraternity – will be watching to see how the players react on the field in their first match under caretaker coach Todd Payten.
Teams traditionally show a bit of backbone at least in the short term after a coach’s axing, using the adversity to pull off an upset or go down swinging. But the exiled Warriors’ coronavirus-enforced situation, their closeness to Kearney and the abrupt, unexpected nature of the decision – not to mention the calibre of their opponents – will really test this team’s spirit.
But the players, and to a lesser extent Payten, have nothing to lose this weekend. Not so the club’s owners and management, who can ill-afford the public backlash of a heavy defeat which feeds into a dismal remaining 13 weeks after rolling the dice on extricating the squad’s most reliable, supportive individual out of the Warriors’ bubble.
‘Fus’ cracks the ton
David Fusitu’a cracks a nice little milestone this weekend, racking up his 100th appearance in the NRL. He’s just the 24th player to reach a century of games for the Warriors and – in a remarkable stat that exposes the lack of stability in their ranks – the first since Shaun Johnson in 2015 to achieve it.
No other current player has turned out more times for the Warriors, with Ken Maumalo (90 games) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (82) next on the list.
With his opener last Friday, Fusitu’a moved to fifth on the Warriors’ all-time try-scorers list with 61; Johnson and Simon Mannering (63) tries are next in his sights. Incidentally, a 19-year-old Fusitu’a’s maiden NRL try came in the 2014 Anzac Day victory over the Storm.
Meanwhile, Maumalo’s return gives the Warriors what most would consider their best three-quarter line for the first time since Round 1. Big Ken’s metre-eating qualities will come in handy, while hopefully he and ‘Fus’ will get a few opportunities at the other end.
The Warriors backs – with injuries and Gerard Beale lack of pace and Adam Pompey’s lack of gumption crucial – have struggled defensively against quicker opponents with ball-playing fullbacks in recent weeks. That aspect will have a huge bearing on Friday night, though the named quartet are better equipped to combat the Storm.
Eliesa Katoa’s rookie-season rampage has arguably been the biggest positive of a tumultuous season for the Warriors. But the mouth-watering back-row prospect is likely to be ruled out until Round 10 after bravely battling on with an ankle complaint against Souths.
In six NRL games, Katoa has averaged 126.6 metres and 32 tackles, scored two tries, made 17 tackle-breaks and generally been the Warriors’ most dangerous attacking forward – a factor helped by his outstanding combination with Kodi Nikorima.
The Warriors will lose plenty offence-wise with fellow first-grade novice Jack Murchie coming into the starting side, but it’s on the other side of the ball where the real concern lies. Nikorima missed eight tackles last week and needs a minder; Murchie, though, has been exposed on occasion and has a big enough task worrying about himself.
Tohu Harris and Adam Blair have been in magnificent touch since the restart and need to maintain that level for the Warriors to have a chance of matching the Storm’s all-representative (with two automatic-pick Kiwis on the bench) forward pack.
Show us what you’ve got, Toddy
Todd Payten has been waiting in the wings for an NRL shot for some time, highly touted since hanging up the boots on a 259-game playing career in 2011. He won an NYC premiership at his first crack with Wests Tigers just 12 months later and has been spruiked as a head coach regularly during assistant stints with the Tigers and Cowboys.
Brought to Auckland as an attack coach in 2019, Payten’s results in that department have been underwhelming to say the least. But perhaps with the handbrake of the conservative, completions-focused Kearney, we might see a return to the enterprising style the Warriors used to be known for.
It’s the only way for the Warriors to make something of their 2020 season – and for Payten to potentially parlay this caretaker stint into a permanent gig.
Making Roger Tuivasa-Sheck more of a focal point near the opposition line has to be a priority. The inspirational skipper has been a workhorse from the back but largely anonymous at the other end of the park. In fact, he is one of only two regular 2020 fullbacks yet to score a try with Caleb Aekins and one of only three without a try-assist with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Ryan Papenhuyzen – and the Warriors are desperate for another point of attack in comparison to Penrith, Canberra and Melbourne.
2019 running metres: 206.16
2020 running metres: 206.15
This is the guy that isn’t meant to be relied on the backfield and instead “saving him up for when we get over halfway” this season.
He’s a freak.
— Jason Oliver (@JasonNRL) June 24, 2020
Out-of-favour playmaker Chanel Harris-Tavita makes his first appearance since the NRL’s restart, named on the bench with Karl Lawton promoted to hooker for the suspended Wayde Egan.
CHT was stiff to miss out in Round 3 but Kodi Nikorima’s form at five-eighth has kept him in the shadows. Every Warriors fan would love to see what Harris-Tavita and Nikorima can do together in the halves given Blake Green’s struggles and the likelihood he will be moved on at the end of the year.
This week, though, barring injury Chanel can expect to spend his time off the bench at dummy-half – where he broke his arm against Canberra to end his rookie campaign prematurely last year. There’s no way it’s his best spot, but Harris-Tavita has the pluck, creativity and toughness to make a go of it.
Hopefully Payten will have the courage to leave the pedestrian Egan out if a Lawton/Harris-Tavita rotation proves a winner.
— NRL (@NRL) August 9, 2019
Storm get a taste of Warriors’ plight
Victoria’s worrying COVID-19 resurgence has pitched Melbourne into a difficult position with little warning. The Storm’s home game was reassigned to Jubilee Oval and the squad will be based out of state indefinitely after having just days to process what that means for them and their families.
While the nomadic Warriors’ situation is considerably more arduous and is likely to extend far beyond when the Storm get to go home, they had several weeks to prepare and should now be (for want of a more sympathetic term) accustomed to it.
The Storm won’t be – and a hurried, stressful build-up could impact them this week, regardless of the peerless leadership at the club.
Whether it will be enough for the Warriors to snap a rivalry record eight-match losing streak against the heavyweights – last saluting in the ‘Nathan Friend back-flip’ victory of 2015 – remains to be seen.
Switching the game to Jubilee Oval – better known as Kogarah Oval – won’t fill the Warriors with a great deal of confidence. They’ve won just one of five games at the Dragons’ Sydney home ground, with their lone victory coming back in 2003.
The Storm boast a 4-2 record at the venue, outlasting Cronulla there in Round 2 this season.