The opening month of the 2021 NRL season is in the books and the jury remains out on the Nathan Brown-led incarnation of the New Zealand Warriors.
Two wins from four outings reads reasonably well given their tough-ish draw, with all four games coming against teams that finished ninth or better in 2020. But a generous portion of luck aided the Warriors’ record-breaking comeback win in Canberra in Round 3 and they were downright dismal in a 32-12 loss to the weakened Sydney Roosters on Easter Sunday.
Brown’s game-plan – particularly in attack – appears severely limited, there’s big question marks at hooker and in the halves, and the Warriors’ big wingers are badly out of sorts. Meanwhile, the club’s casualty ward is filling rapidly. First-choice starters Euan Aitken, Peta Hiku, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Addin Fonua-Blake have succumbed to medium-term injuries.
But what can the Warriors’ early-season win-loss stats tell us about a projected finish? They have remained steady in the Top 8 Finish market at $2.68 and are surprisingly on the seventh line of premiership betting at just $21.
In their first 26 seasons, the Warriors went 4-0 just once – in 2018 (the streak ended at five wins) when they finished eighth but just two points behind the minor premiers.
The club’s only 3-1 starts resulted in a minor premiership into a Grand Final (2002) and a sixth-place finish that led to a preliminary final (2003).
This year marks the 14th time the Warriors have sat midtable with two wins and two losses record after four rounds. A 2-2 start was responsible for four of the club’s other five finals appearances: 2001, 2007-08 and 2010.
The Warriors’ eight other previous 2-2 starts garnered ninth- (2014) and 10th-placed (2006) finishes, along with six disappointing 11th-14th ladder placings at the end of the season. They would have made the eight in 2006, too, if not for a four-point salary-cap breach penalty.
Evidently, getting at least an even share of the NRL’s opening-month spoils is crucial to the Warriors’ finals prospects – but there is one outlier in their history of slow starts. In 2011 the Warriors went 0-3 before opening their account in Round 4. They went on to finish sixth before staging a memorable charge to the club’s second Grand Final appearance.
It's Top Ten Tuesday and we're trying something a little different this week. Where were you when Lewis Brown scored 'that' try? pic.twitter.com/3AelwdjwjC
— TAB Sport (@TAB_Sport) April 6, 2021
The Warriors’ other seven 1-3 starts resulted in September holidays. They have never started a season with four straight losses, while the club’s diabolical 2000 campaign opened up with a win, a draw and two losses.
And if history is any gauge, Friday’s clash with struggling Manly is a crunch game. Only twice have the Warriors recovered from 2-3 to make the playoffs – in 2001, when they scraped into their maiden finals series with a 12-12-2 record – and 2011.
Despite the devastating injury blow to Fonua-Blake and a one-match suspension dished out to fellow front-row starter Bunty Afoa, the Warriors are overwhelming $1.37 favourites to account for the Sea Eagles in Gosford.
Manly has been awful, conceding 39 points per game and scoring just 8.5 on average in losing their first four games.
Most are drawing a line through the Sea Eagles as a Top 8 contender – they have blown out to $5.70 to reach the playoffs – but the lessons of yesteryear suggest all is not lost. Five teams have recovered from an 0-4 start to make the finals in the NRL era.
Defending champs Brisbane Broncos lost their first five games in 1999 before rallying to finish eighth. Melbourne Storm opened their title defence in 2000 with four straight defeats yet managed to land in sixth spot. St George Illawarra Dragons went 0-4 in 2005 but only missed out on the minor premiership on for-and-against. The Sea Eagles lost their first four as defending premiers in 2009 but ultimately finished fifth with 14 wins. Cronulla Sharks appeared on track for consecutive wooden spoons when they started the 2015 season 0-4, before turning things around with 14 victories to come sixth.
Theoretically the same applies to fellow winless sides Canterbury and North Queensland, both $9.20 for a Top 8 Finish, though those clubs’ prospects of significant improvement are minimal.
— TAB Sport (@TAB_Sport) April 7, 2021