TWL 2021 PREVIEW: ADDIN FONUA-BLAKE

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After striking out with a host of big-name recruitment targets in the past couple of years, the Warriors pulled off one of the biggest signing coups in their history when Addin Fonua-Blake announced he was joining the club on a three-year deal – less than a week after securing a shock release from Manly.

The Sydney-born, 118kg front-row powerhouse made his NRL debut for the Sea Eagles in 2016 and cracked the Tonga and New Zealand Test line-ups the following season (he has aligned himself with Tonga since 2018). Over the past couple of years he has earned a reputation as one of the game’s best props…and he arrives at the Warriors on a contract to match that status, reportedly in the range of $850,000 per season.

The acquisition of Fonua-Blake is a mouth-watering prospect for Warriors fans, new coach Nathan Brown and the playmakers who will get to play off the back of his elite-level go-forward. But he’s a marquee player on massive coin – a recruitment strategy that has frequently back-fired on the club. The likes of Steve Price, Ruben Wiki, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Tohu Harris are the shining exceptions AFB will be aiming to follow, rather than joining Denis Betts, Matthew Ridge, Sam Tomkins, and to a lesser extent Ryan Hoffman and Issac Luke, on the list of big-money miscues.

But the 25-year-old’s ability to live up to the hype form-wise may not be the Warriors’ biggest concern. Fonua-Blake has a chequered history on and off the paddock. Question marks hang over his temperament and maturity, both in the heat of battle and away from the paddock. The abrupt nature of his departure from Manly raised red flags; the official line was “family reasons” but NRL360’s Paul Kent stated he believed it was to escape negative influences in Sydney. Co-host Ben Ikin went as far as saying he wouldn’t have Fonua-Blake at his club due to his potentially disruptive personality traits. Perhaps the decision to link with the Warriors displays a newfound awareness – but his Instagram reaction to the Sea Eagles granting his release suggests he’s not too worried about ditching the loose-cannon persona.

Purely from a football perspective, Fonua-Blake provides the Warriors’ previously pedestrian pack with elements it has arguably not possessed since Price and Wiki last rolled up their sleeves together in 2008. He’ll be under the microscope more than at any other stage of his career to date, but Fonua-Blake has the potential to become one of the club’s greatest-ever signings.

HOW 2020 WENT: At his best, Fonua-Blake was one of the NRL’s most effective, dynamic forwards last season. But his campaign was somewhat overshadowed by a rare send-off in a loss to Newcastle, before being slapped with a two-match suspension and fined $20,000 for calling referee Grant Atkins “a f***ing retard”. A contrite Fonua-Blake returned to the field but struggled for consistency during the second half of the season, while injury ruled him out of three of the disappointing Sea Eagles’ last seven games.

THE OUTLOOK FOR 2021: A fresh start and headline billing in the Warriors pack makes Fonua-Blake one of the NRL’s most intriguing individual storylines of 2021. With 97 games from five full seasons of first grade under his belt, he should be coming into his prime. But Fonua-Blake must adjust to a role as front-row leader after playing his entire NRL career to date alongside experienced top-shelf enforcer Martin Taupau. The Warriors have struggled for impact, go-forward and genuine mongrel up front for almost a decade – areas where the big, mobile and aggressive Fonua-Blake excels. He’ll allow the side’s more tradesmanlike forwards to go about their jobs, while hopefully creating an outstanding attacking platform for the likely spine of RTS, Kodi Nikorima, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Wayde Egan.

But few past Warriors have gone about their business with the same level of braggadocio as AFB, and it will be fascinating to see how he fits into (or erodes) the club’s humble good-guy culture led by the likes of RTS, Tohu Harris and the now-retired Adam Blair.

KEY STATS: In a disjointed 2020, Fonua-Blake still averaged a career-high 166 metres in 15 games. He topped 200 running metres on five occasions and 100 post-contact metres three times. Fonua-Blake’s defence is often overlooked, but he made 26 tackles per game at a 93.9 percent efficiency rate – including nine games with zero missed tackles against his name.

BEST CASE: A combination of 1999-2000 Joe Vagana’s impact and presence, and Steve Price’s NRL-leading numbers and lead-from-the-front mentality. Fonua-Blake boasts the ability and the paycheque worthy of the world’s best prop mantle; if he combines that with the form required of such a lofty standing the sky is the limit for the Warriors.

WORST CASE: The decent numbers, limited substance of a late-career Ben Matulino, and/or off-field histrionics overshadowing his on-field contributions, a la wasted talents Sione Faumuina and Kevin Locke.

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