Warriors fans are still basking in the afterglow of the Shaun Johnson signing news, but it’s crunch time for their team’s 2021 campaign this Friday.
A loss to the seventh-placed St George Illawarra Dragons in Round 16 would likely leave the Warriors languishing four points outside the Top 8 with 10 rounds remaining – and a tough three-week stretch against Johnson’s Cronulla Sharks and big guns Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs just around the corner.
The Warriors have drifted to $3.80 in the Top 8 Finish market, shortening to just $1.22 To Miss the Top 8. They are now $61 longshots for the premiership. Curiously, though, the Warriors are the shortest-priced team in title betting outside the well-established top six clubs, perhaps a reflection of the talent in the club’s ranks and the potential if it belatedly clicks.
Despite sitting 11th on the table after chalking up just one win in their last six games, the Warriors are $1.70 favourites to topple the erratic Saints in Gosford.
The absence of fullback fulcrum Reece Walsh due to a hamstring injury and first-choice duo Euan Aitken and Josh Curran because of COVID protocols has been tempered by the fast-tracking of experienced mid-season arrivals Chad Townsend and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak into the Warriors’ backline.
The Warriors carved out an unlikely 20-14 victory over the Dragons at Jubilee Oval in Round 6, creating history by completing 100 percent of their sets. With attacking spark Walsh out, expect coach Nathan Brown to revert to the conservative approach that served the side reasonably well earlier in the season.
But winning – or at least holding their own – in the battle of the big boppers will be integral to the Warriors’ chances against St George Illawarra. Brown’s perplexing front-row rotations have been partly to blame, but the Warriors’ props have been found wanting on the offensive side of the ball.
While the NRL’s elite front-rowers such as James Fisher-Harris (average 176.2 metres), David Klemmer (171.1m), Payne Haas (163.2m), Martin Taupau (155.3m), Daniel Saifiti (152.6m), Moeaki Fotuaika (152.1m), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (151m), Reagan Campbell-Gillard (147.1m) and Christian Welch (146m) can be relied upon to shoulder big loads and rack up impressive running metres totals on a weekly basis, their Warriors counterparts are struggling to lay a platform.
Addin Fonua-Blake: 2021 average – 125m; 2021 best – 202m
The marquee buy did what it says on the tin at the start of the season, providing the Warriors with an elite front-rower for the first time in at least seven years. But a 10-week injury layoff interrupted AFB’s season and he has tallied just 192 metres in total in two games back. Must lift for the Warriors to be a chance at finals footy.
Kane Evans: 2021 average – 79m; 2021 best – 117m
Already a polarising figure after nine games in Warriors colours. Gets the front-row start this week for the sixth time after a couple of weeks off the bench. Had arguably his best ball-running performance against the Knights but still prone to an error or a lazy effort in defence.
Leeson Ah Mau: 2021 average – 74m; 2021 best – 112m
A reliable veteran with watertight defence, Ah Mau has played every game in 2021 but has topped 100 metres just twice despite playing fairly big minutes.
Bunty Afoa: 2021 average – 65m; 2021 best – 132m
The fan favourite seems to provide more impact than any Warriors prop besides Fonua-Blake, yet has been used bizarrely sparingly by Brown – including 22 minutes or less in his last three outings, before being a late exclusion from the Knights loss. Recalled on the bench this week.
Jamayne Taunoa-Brown: 2021 average – 54m; 2021 best – 84m
JTB has been out of favour since Round 12 and his lack of appetite for carting the ball up with vigour has to be the chief reason why. Played 25 minutes against the Tigers and had just one run for nine metres. An alarming fall from grace for the club’s 2020 Rookie of the Year.
Tom Ale: 2021 average – 63m; 2021 best – 89m
Played just two games off the bench before being leapfrogged in the pecking order by Evans. Racked up 89 metres in 23 minutes against Manly and 37 metres in 11 minutes against the Storm. Deserving of another chance but now seems unlikely to get one.
Tohu Harris: 2021 average – 117m; 2021 best – 160m
Though his average metres tally has been down from a career best 173 in 2020, Harris has been the saviour of the Warriors’ middle forward contingent. Started one game at prop this season – against Manly in Round 5 – and chewed off 114 metres. Spends a fair bit of time on the edge and has played the full 80 minutes in the Warriors’ last seven games, while he has failed to break the 100-metre mark just twice in 2021.
Ben Murdoch-Masila: 2021 average – 74m; 2021 best – 117m
Was tried as a front-row starter for the past two rounds with modest results. More effective coming off the bench or starting on an edge, where he reverts to this week. The Warriors’ top try-scorer this season after Ken Maumalo with six.
The Warriors’ bookends have their work cut out this Friday up against the Saints quartet of Paul Vaughan (ave 136m), Blake Lawrie (100m), Josh McGuire (115.1m) and Daniel Alvaro (78m).