The fourth edition of the Māori All Stars versus Indigenous All Stars clash consolidated its place on the rugby league calendar – arguably the most meaningful and absorbing fixture that has ever graced the problematic pre-season period.
The top-shelf intensity, drama and genuine aggro was Origin-esque and more than made up for understandable first hit-out sloppiness (which was not aided by persistent rain in western Sydney) as the Māori side held on for a gritty 16-10 victory at CommBank Stadium.
Such is the pride in representing their respective cultures, individual ambition – the usual hallmark of February-hosted footy – is secondary. As it should be.
But with NRL first-grade spots up for grabs ahead of Round 1 in just four weeks’ time the All Stars match doubles as a defacto audition, particularly when a club has as much line-up uncertainty as the Warriors.
So did the four Warriors on display on Saturday night enhance their claims?
Glass half full?
Māori All Stars halves Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tavita are locked in a fascinating three-way battle with recruit Ashley Taylor to partner returning talisman Shaun Johnson this season.
While Kodi and CHT tried hard and were busy throughout, I found the generous praise of their performance in the win a bit perplexing. The duo’s most impressive contribution was a singular ball-running highlight apiece, masking patchy all-round displays in admittedly difficult conditions.
Nikorima – relegated to a bench role by Nathan Brown at the back-end of 2021 – had arguably the most to prove. He backed up his co-captain Joe Tapine and unleashed some typically brilliant footwork to dive over for the Māori’s first try of the night in the second quarter – a cracking trademark effort.
— NRL (@NRL) February 12, 2022
Seconded to fullback during the fourth quarter, Harris-Tavita showed tremendous anticipation and surprising pace on a searing 65-metre kick return that eventually saw him pulled down 10 metres from the Indigenous All Stars’ line by Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Nicho Hynes.
But the starting pairing in 14 NRL games over the past two seasons failed to stamp their authority as the Māori All Stars enjoyed a glut of good field position during the first half; their last-tackle options and short kicking game were well below par. They are areas Johnson should dominate in 2022, but the lack of composure and finesse were a tad frustrating if you were hoping either player was going to stake a claim for the Warriors’ No.6.
Both playmakers took on the line regularly and threatened on the fringes at times but execution – especially from Harris-Tavita – was lacking. Meanwhile, Nikorima butchered a match-sealing overlap opportunity following Chanel’s long break. The pair defended soundly enough, with Harris-Tavita’s sole miss coming on a rampaging David Fifita in the lead-up to the Indigenous team’s opening try.
Overall, neither did their chances too much harm – and it’s worth noting the build-up to this match with largely unfamiliar teammates is limited – but the door is certainly still more than ajar for Taylor.
Jazz tunes up
Reigning TWL Player of the Year (calm down, it was based purely on our weekly player ratings) Jazz Tevaga has been the odd man out in most Warriors Round 1 line-up predictions. But the tenacious back-rower/hooker made a solid statement on Māori All Stars debut.
Starting at lock – a spot very much up for grabs in the Warriors pack, especially while Tohu Harris continues to rehab – Tevaga also spent time at dummy-half, laying on what should have been his team’s first try for Joe Tapine but for a diabolical video ref call.
In 53 minutes on the paddock, Jazz racked up 94 metres from 14 tough carries, and reeled off an equal-team-high 37 tackles and an equal-game-high three offloads. He had one error against his name, but the oft-niggly customer did not give away a penalty or six-again infringement in his first outing since sparking the Warriors’ late-game meltdown against the Titans in Round 25 last year.
Tevaga is an oddly divisive character, but his enthusiastic, wholehearted effort for the Māori illustrates why I believe he offers more to the Warriors than the likes of Brown pet Bayley Sironen, the lock incumbent.
The 26-year-old, who is currently the Warriors’ longest-serving player in terms of NRL appearances and time since his first-grade debut (Shaun Johnson aside), remains a viable No.14 option – but I’d be starting him in the 13.
After cementing a second-row spot at the Warriors towards the end of 2021, Curran was chosen to oppose clubmate Tevaga as the Indigenous team’s starting lock.
Curran made his mark on All Stars debut in 2020 with a barnstorming try. A three-game NRL player at the time, he failed to kick on that season but produced a breakout campaign in 14 top-grade appearances last year to emerge as one of the Warriors’ most popular players.
Still only 22, the element of Curran’s performance on Saturday night that impressed me most was how comfortable he appeared in elite company – the Māori pack was stacked with Kiwi Test stalwarts, after all – and a powderkeg environment before a failed HIA ended his night prematurely.
In 47 minutes of game-time, Curran chalked up three tackle-breaks and 80 metres from nine runs, and made 18 tackles without a miss. The mulletted cult hero looked more dangerous when running wider and caused the Māori defence a few first-half headaches. Meanwhile, he was first on the scene and in the thick of the flare-up that eventually saw Andrew Fifita and Jordan Rapana sin-binned. He copped a head knock while almost retrieving a grubber kick to score a try.
A solid lock option in Harris’ early-season absence, Curran still best serves the Warriors sniffing on the edges as a second-rower – a role that garnered four tries and five try-assists in 2021. He should relish teaming up with Shaun Johnson in that capacity.
Ka mau te wehi! Congrats to our brothers who represented their culture with pride. Thank you and well done to everyone involved throughout #NRLAllStar week 🙌🏽
NZ in 2023, surely 😏 pic.twitter.com/LgSf07AZXq
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) February 13, 2022