TWL 2021 PREVIEW: DAVID FUSITU’A

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No player on the Warriors’ roster is at more of a career crossroads than long-serving outside-back David Fusitu’a. The only member of the squad with 100 NRL games for the club to his name, ‘Fus’ has slid into a bewildering form funk since his club-record-equalling, competition-leading 23-try campaign in 2018.

Injuries have stymied the freakish finisher during the past two seasons, while he was a late arrival in Australia and returned to Auckland early due to family reasons amid the COVID chaos of 2020. The pandemic outbreak effectively scuppered Stephen Kearney’s centre experiment – a position Fusitu’a has enjoyed some success in previously – while his wing stint prior to heading home was very underwhelming.

The tries have dried up since Shaun Johnson’s exit and fellow right-edge crony Peta Hiku’s shift to the left in 2019. But it’s more than that. Fusitu’a appeared cumbersome, less athletic and unsure of how to inject himself (aside from the customary kick-returns and hit-ups out of Warriors territory) without his trademark aerial finishes to fill up the highlight reels.

Reputation and latent ability will probably see the Tongan star snare a wing spot for Round 1. But the Warriors have a plethora of other options – some of whom proved themselves under Todd Payten during 2020 – and Nathan Brown can’t afford to carry an out-of-sorts Fusitu’a for too long.

The 26-year-old is signed to the end of 2023. When he inked the long-term extension during a career-best 2018 season, it seemed a major coup for the club. But Fusitu’a is chewing up a decent amount of salary cap for a winger…particularly if he’s not commanding a first-grade spot. On the other hand, a return to his blistering best – which may be aided by reuniting with Hiku – could be a massive boost to the Warriors’ hopes of a Top 8 charge.

HOW 2020 WENT: The early-2020 plan to utilise Fusitu’a in the troublesome right centre spot split opinion. TWL was in favour of the shift – he’d shone there before, was wasting away on the flank through a lack of chances on Blake Green’s edge and had a better all-round skill-set than the other centre options. But he made minimal impact in poor team performances in Rounds 1 and 2, before the Warriors jetted home as the NRL went on COVID-19 hiatus. Fusitu’a went back to Australia late due to personal reasons and was forced to quarantine solo. He belatedly returned to the Warriors’ line-up on the wing for the Round 6 clash with Souths – Kearney’s last in charge – and scored a try before being controversially KO’d out of the game and the following week’s match by a high tackle that went undetected. Fusitu’a featured in the Warriors’ next four games, averaging 146 running metres but enjoying few attacking opportunities. With a pregnant wife at home, he was one of a quartet of players to return to Auckland following the gallant Round 11 loss to the Roosters.

THE OUTLOOK FOR 2021: All media-predicted Round 1 line-ups feature David Fusitu’a on the right wing. But there’s a strong push from a section of fans for Adam Pompey – who grew into the role in spectacular fashion during the last six rounds of 2020, scoring four tries – to get first crack. Ex-Bulldog Marcelo Montoya, giant Fijian Junior Ratuva and utility-back Hayze Perham are also frothing for an opportunity. In other words, ‘Fus’ needs to fire immediately if he gets the nod. Working in his favour is the likely line-up inside him on the right edge: Hiku and Kodi Nikorima. In contrast to Green’s snail-paced playmaking, five-eighth Nikorima has the pace and instincts to skip to the outside and create overlaps, a la Johnson, while Hiku produced four breath-taking try-assists for Patrick Herbert and Pompey in six games after reverting to right centre in Round 14. Meanwhile, having his family in Australia can only help Fusitu’a’s bid to regain his status as one of the NRL’s premier wingers.

KEY STATS: From his NRL debut in 2014 to the end of 2018, Fusitu’a scored 55 tries in 80 games (including 23 from 23 games in 2018) at a rate of 0.69 tries per game – the best strike-rate in Warriors history at the time. Since then, he has crossed for just six tries in 23 appearances (0.26 per game). On a positive note, he averaged 121 running metres per game in 2019 and 116 last year, up from 106 in his charmed 2018 campaign. In his last appearance before returning to New Zealand, Fusitu’a racked up an impressive 190 metre (80 post-contact). Fusitu’a has tasted victory in just one of his last 10 NRL games.

BEST CASE: A hungry and happier Fusitu’a strikes up a combination with Nikorima and Hiku to reproduce his elite tryscoring form and highlight-reel fodder of 2018, setting him back on course to becoming just the second Warrior after Manu Vatuvei to score a century of tries for the club.

WORST CASE: A sluggish start to 2021 sees Fusitu’a succumb to the irresistible selection claims of Pompey et al, leading to an early exit to Super League reminiscent of the mid-career departures of Henry Fa’afili and Francis Meli during the 2000s.

TWL 2021 PREVIEW: ADDIN FONUA-BLAKE

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