Reality check for Warriors attack without Shaun Johnson
The 2018 season felt like a game-changer for the Warriors. They won a club-record eight games away from home, produced consistent results at points in the season they'd so often crumbled and turned themselves into a controlled and reliable side.
From teaching players 'te reo Māori' to the breathing exercise after points, the club changed for the better.
Then the Shaun Johnson news came through. No matter which side of the fence you sit, losing a player of his stature impacts a club so close to the start of a season.
So began the cycle of acceptance.
That newly-formed and professional 'normal existence' left for dysfunction and uncertainty on the announcement of his departure.
Denial set in as fans desperately tried to convince themselves the club could be better off without him.
By the end of the four-game losing streak after Round 8, anger at the poor start to the season arose. Having won six games through eight rounds in 2018, the six losses in two months to start 2019 weren't cutting it.
Back-to-back wins in Round 9 and 10 gave hope to a revival, but back-to-back losses soon took that hope away for the Warriors to sit at 13th on the ladder with just four wins in 12 games.
The embarrassing and classically Warriors loss to the Storm last week had plenty questioning their loyalty and affiliation with the club even though we know they'll be back next week.
Nevertheless, depression hits.
"Here we go again."
"Another year without finals football."
We're now at the bargaining stage of the cycle. Things aren't going back to what they were in 2018 anytime soon; it's time to compromise and exchange what we had for a reformed lifestyle.
That reformation being, the Warriors attack without Johnson.
We're not going to get into whether he's worth the money or the fact that almost every premiership winning team over the NRL era has had a top tier half in their squad - we're not.
But his absence and the impact it's had on what was a dangerous, consistent, and productive right-side attack can't be ignored. To advance to the next stage of the cycle of acceptance, we must look at what the Warriors attack was before determining what it can become, and how it gets there.
David Fusitu'a finished 2018 with an NRL-high 23 tries in a career year for the Tongan winger. Fast-forward to halfway through the 2019 season, and he has two tries in ten games. While Fusitu'a is one of the best finishers in the game, it was the three blokes inside him that created the opportunities.
Johnson along with Tohu Harris and Peta Hiku made up close to a perfect trio in attack.
Johnson provided the footwork and flare, Harris the line-running and smarts, and Hiku the strength and quick hands. Between them, the Warriors always had options when shifting to that potent right side.
Liking to set up in the middle to give himself room to move, Johnson had the option of putting Harris through a hole or feeding him early to straighten the attack. This try here last year shows just how good Harris is at straightening the attack, making the right decision, and executing for Fusitu'a to score.
This try from the weekend instantly came to mind thinking about Harris and the difference he makes to the Warriors' right side.— Jason Oliver (@JasonNRL) August 27, 2018
Hiku gets credited with the try assist, but it's all in Harris straightening up and engaging FOUR defenders before shifting it.
So good. pic.twitter.com/UWj8Haa0Pu
Harris can't just put himself in positions to use those talents, though. That comes from the inside. It comes from the regularity - and sometimes just the threat - of a quick half inside him getting beyond his man and throwing some doubt into the defensive line.
Kodi Nikorima has added some of that to the left side since his arrival, but Harris was switched over to the right side last week.
Hiku has also been moved around, and to be fair, his quick hands have played a part Ken Maumalo scoring eight tries in 12 games this year compared to five in 23 throughout 2018. But at what cost? Fusitu'a is an elite finisher. If he's not the best in the competition, he's in the top three. He's going unused due to the lack of service at the moment.
Without the Johnson cut-out passes, Harris' straightened runs and Hiku's offloads, Fusitu'a hasn't been able to produce his acrobatic finishes in the corner.
So, Johnson's departure has cost the Warriors the best right-side attack in the competition.
However - this is the compromise part - no Johnson doesn't mean there is no chance at a revival of the Warriors attack.
As long as Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is out there, points are on offer. They may need to make a few changes and adjust the spots on the field they try to get to, though.
Nikorima has had his moments since arriving at the club. His signing isn't a lost cause. But he can't be the heart and soul of the attack. He's spending time on both sides of the field at the moment. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but with so much going through him during good ball sets, the Warriors have become somewhat predictable.
They're still working to similar spots on the field to last year. Setting up around the right post, they're still attempting to create six-four-splits and have Nikorima try to get on the outside of his man to open up opportunities for those outside him on the right. However, the defence is following Nikorima, closing him down, and stalling the Warriors attack on that side of the field. It's not too dissimilar to what was going wrong with the Broncos on that side of the field to start the season.
Nikorima is fine to roam around. In fact, he probably needs to given Green's limitations as a ball-runner. It's picking the times and spots on the field that can improve.
Rather than following the ball to the right and premeditating the shape and side of the ruck they're going to play, have Tuivasa-Sheck take up more of the touches as the backdoor option of a block play. At the moment, Nikorima is swinging around and filling that option and the defence is following him across.
Tuivasa-Sheck is one of the best ball-runners in the game and his feet are mesmerizing, but he can throw a pass too.
Keeping Green in the middle to direct traffic, setting up more plays like this one here could pay dividends for the Warriors.
Using a cutting Isaiah Papali'i to take Viliame Kikau's attention, Tuivasa-Sheck can get on the outside of his man. The outside defence turns to take notice and he sends Partick Herbert over the line. Herbert had plenty of work to do to get there, but the scramble is created by Tuivasa-Sheck forcing Waqa Blake in before turning.
Tuivasa-Sheck already does so much for this side, but he's going to need to do more to make up the difference between this year and last. That doesn't have to be running for 200 metres and breaking ten tackles every game. It can be through these ball-playing scenarios at the line where his gravity forces the defence to make decisions.
The Warriors always have an abundance of attacking talent. Just behind their reputation for being perennial underachievers, the club is known for its ability to pile up points on anybody when they're on.
They've not been on enough this year, though.
We're halfway through the season and reality has hit. A lot of what was built in 2018 is now gone. Working through the denial, anger and depression, this adjustment and bargaining of the Warriors attack may just be enough to trigger acceptance, and the transition into a new - maybe even improved - normal existence.