Hopeful Warriors: How NZ Can Build Towards 2022
It doesn't matter the players filling the first-choice 17 or which coach is in the box; it's always the New Zealand Warriors year according to the faithful fans across the ditch.
As usual, 2021 would be the year the club finally started to become a consistent finals contender if they didn't manage to sneak in this time around.
The Warriors did their best to limit the damage Covid could have on the club by committing to stay in Australia for the long term. Their intention was to build some stability and consistency in a club that had to work hard just to avoid falling apart a season earlier. Rather ironically, the 2021 season has been anything but stable, and the only area of consistency has been the number ticking over in the loss column.
13 new faces have made their debut for the club in 2021. Chad Townsend makes it 14 if you consider the six years between his 41st and 42nd appearance for the club. Only the Broncos (35) and Bulldogs (33) have used more players than the Warriors' 32 throughout the first 19 rounds of the season.
Paul Turner, Euan Aitken, Peta Hiku, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Addin Fonua-Blake and Eli Katoa have all suffered through lengthy injury layoffs. Now Wayde Egan and Tohu Harris are on the sidelines and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has flown home.
Add the club's desire to crowbar Reece Walsh into the side, the lack of depth at hooker and the uncertainty around Kodi Nikorima's future at the club, a new coach that, quite frankly, has done little in his career to suggest he can cope with one of these issues let alone all of them, and team list Tuesday has been a mess almost every week.
The performances of a weekend haven't been much better.
Once considered a Top 8 hopeful, the Warriors are now fastened towards the bottom of the NRL ladder with just five wins in 18 games. It's a strange approach, but Nathan Brown has already conceded that their season is over from a finals perspective despite the mathematical chance and overall inconsistency of the teams above them.
"I would have thought that’s starting to look beyond us now if we’re being truthful," Brown told Stuff.
"You’d like to say that it’s not, but you get to a stage where there are only so many games left and for us, we haven’t had a win for a while."
So, with the coach ruling out an admittedly unlikely finals appearance and the front office doing similar by allowing Tuivasa-Sheck to leave the club early, we're left to scratch around for six weeks, looking for positives to take into 2022.
Allowing Karl Lawton to sign with the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles mid-season always looked like a mistake. With Wayde Egan ruled out for the season before Round 19, Brown had a grand total of one first-grade game's worth of genuine hooker experience to choose from when naming his side to face the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
It's imperative from here that Taniela Otukolo plays as many minutes as he can through to Round 25. Raw, inexperienced and named to make the first start of his NRL career in Round 20, getting first-grade reps into the 19-year-old will help provide cover for Egan next season.
Otukolo scored nine tries while running for 87 metres per game in SG Ball last season, but his two appearances off the bench - for just 93 minutes - is the only football he has played this year.
Walsh has been forced into the side for most of this season. It's best for Brown to do the same with Otukolo for the rest of this year with 2022 in mind.
Finding SJ's Partner
Whether Nikorima remains at the club for 2022 or not, the spot beside Shaun Johnson in the halves is up for grabs.
The Warriors have reset their timeline this season and planned for the future. With that in mind, Chanel Harris-Tavita looks like the best option to partner Johnson next season.
Similarly to Johnson, Harris-Tavita's reputation as a ball runner and sidestepper precedes him. People have seen highlights of his scorpion kick for the Junior Kiwis and expect that style of play to translate into first grade. It doesn't, and he knows it.
Harris-Tavita has talked about his newfound focus - out of necessity given the current makeup of the team more than anything else - on becoming a game manager and more of a traditional #7. While frustrated fans across the ditch called for his dropping and gave up on him as a long-term option in the halves, Harris-Tavita continued to develop the more subtle aspects of halfback play. He has added a nice tempo change to his run and has found success in taking the line on and isolating big bodies around him onto single defenders. His kicking game needs a lot of work, but he is strong defensively and willing to complete the less glamorous roles of a halfback in passing players into position and providing width when they work out of their own end.
Unsurprisingly, what Harris-Tavita adds to the Warriors became more noticeable when he sat in the stands with an injury.
Harris-Tavita is expected to return next week and playing beside Chad Townsend is an ideal audition for 2022. Johnson returns to the club as more of a game manager than when he left. He will be playing on the ball next season which will allow his halves partner to play wider.
With his willingness to take on and engage the line, adopting a more five-eighth style of play can be where Harris-Tavita takes the next step in his career.
The Warriors coaching staff should be sending him Kieran Foran tape to watch every day in preparation for his return in Round 21 with the intention of Harris-Tavita following the footsteps of the 229-game veteran across the remaining five games of the season.
Walsh Coming Of Age
Reece Walsh was taught some valuable lessons in Round 19.
It was always going to happen at some stage.
Against arguably the greatest coach of all time, a half with the kicking game of Adam Reynolds, a hooker with the speed and deception to create from dummy half and the overall attacking onslaught the Rabbitohs provide, the Warriors' 60-22 loss is one Walsh can learn a lot from.
The Rabbitohs made an effort to pick Walsh out in the defensive line to expose his limitations in defence. He was the primary target of three Rabbitohs tries as they identified him in the line - often as the A defender - and sent big bodies in his direction.
At 19-years-old and 88kg in the middle of an NRL season, Walsh isn't going to improve his defence in this position any time soon. He simply won't win the contact against the majority of first-grade players, let alone middles. He can, however, make adjustments to his positioning and kick defence.
In attack, it becomes about picking his moments. The Warriors have gone searching for Walsh too often too early at times this season. He sparked the attack from the day he made his debut, but as opposition teams watch the film and produce a game plan to limit his influence with the ball, he has struggled to maintain the creative aspect of his game. He handed out eight try assists in six games but has managed just two in his last four.
Walsh will be working through issues in his game for a couple of years yet. Given the compressing style of play the Warriors are developing this season, it's important to their hopes in 2022 that Walsh begins to pop up in positions to make the final pass more than he receives it to score himself.
Lodge + Fonua-Blake
Injuries and suspensions continue to limit how much time Matthew Lodge and Addin Fonua-Blake spend on the field together, but the signs look good early.
Working in pairs, the two have linked up well at times already this season. The passing game Lodge was surely told to put away at Brisbane has reappeared for him to complete a career-high 15 passes in Round 18. He wasn't able to release the ball quite so often as the Rabbitohs dominated the middle of the field in Round 19. Still, the skillset for Lodge and Fonua-Blake to torment opposition middle defences is there.
With Lodge's ability to pass and Fonua-Blake's late footwork at the line or before he receives the ball, the pair can generate yardage and quick play-the-balls for the Warriors attack to play off. Their size allows them to compress the defence in the middle while their individual skills make it difficult for the opposition to bring three players into the tackle.
This example of Lodge tipping it inside to Fonua-Blake is a prime example of their potential as an attacking pair:
He tipped the ball inside to Fonua-Blake on this one.— Jason Oliver (@JasonNRL) July 23, 2021
Having AFB charge at the line that close brings three defenders into the tackle. That allows Walsh to start on the outside of his man, & when To’o doesn’t follow his defence in field, he makes the right pass. pic.twitter.com/wk5dlbIMAP
The Warriors have talked about a crash and bash approach to their play with the ball. Hopefully, having seen this slightly more expansive style work well in Round 18, they continue to incorporate short passes to their attack in the middle of the field.
Defending Until The End
It's difficult to have a positive outlook on an improving Warriors defence when they've just conceded 60 points. Overall, they're 12th in defence conceding 27 points per game.
It has been a disappointing season for the Warriors on the defensive side of the ball. After conceding 22.9 points per game in 2020 and developing a new reputation as a genuinely tough football side, they haven't been able to carry that commitment in defence over to this season.
Only the Bulldogs and Broncos have conceded more tries through the middle than the Warriors' 22 this season. Middle defence is typically a good measure of how effective a team is on that side of the ball. It's the first area struggling teams look to fix when things begin to go wrong - "they won't go through us."
That hasn't been the case for the Warriors in 2021.
They do a good job of slowing teams down on their way up the field. Per Fox Sports Lab, the Warriors are in the middle of the pack in running metres conceded with 1,501 per game. They're in the positive half of the list in missed tackles and concede the second-fewest offloads per game (8.8). However, their goal line defence needs a lot of work and must be a focus for the remainder of this season whether the squad is at full-strength or not.
As frustrating and uninspiring as it is to hear, Nathan Brown is right when he talks about finals footy being beyond the Warriors. The Stats Insider Futures Modelgives them just a 1.9% chance of cracking the Top 8 by the end of Round 25.
They do have the schedule to have a crack, though. The Knights are the only team with an easier run home than the Warriors from Round 20 onward.
However, as the injuries and losses pile up and the coach begins to make plans for next season, it's unlikely the Warriors win more than two games from here. Broncos and Bulldogs offer opportunities in Round 21 and 23, but those two will have circled their fixture against the Warriors as one to win themselves.
Rather than wins and losses, the rest of this season is about identifying areas that need improving and working towards them with 2022 in mind.
A scenario I hope to see over the next six weeks: Otukolo darts out from dummy half and engages a marker at the same time. His shovel pass to Lodge engages the A and B defender and Fonua-Blake takes an inside ball to generate a quick play-the-ball. From there, the Warriors look left; Townsend to Harris-Tavita, Harris-Tavita to Walsh out the back of shape. The young fullback assesses the situation and makes the right pass for the Warriors to score.
They then go on to defend well after points and take the chocolates.
Although, it is always the hope that kills a Warriors fan...
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