The Good, The Bad and The Future: New Zealand Warriors
The 2020 NRL season wouldn't have run as smoothly as it has without the sacrifices of the New Zealand Warriors. It may not have run at all. That in itself is a reason to celebrate the club and congratulate them on an impressive year. But as the season has worn on, and despite the front office creating a few problems themselves, the playing group has exceeded every expectation put on them in the build-up to Round 3.
Most had them as morals for the wooden spoon. Others wouldn't have been surprised to see the Warriors lose every game for the remainder of the season once Stephen Kearney was sacked. In the end, they weren't rubbed out of finals contention until after Round 18. They made the beaten 2019 Grand Finalists work for the win in Round 19, and now have their sights set on a season-ending victory and happy flight home after Round 20.
Win or lose on Sunday, this playing group has produced a season to be proud of in 2020. One that will force the new coaching staff to set lofty goals ahead of the 2021 campaign.
While seven wins this season - possibly eight - is a magnificent achievement under the circumstances, the Warriors have been here before. It's not the first time they've been tipped to finish 16th only to overachieve and pull off a few unexpected wins. The difference this time is how they've done it. It's the toughness they've shown, the resilience when things start to go against them, and the consistency at which they're ready and raring to go when the siren sounds.
Any member of the Warriors faithful can tell you they've called defeat inside five minutes of a game at least once in the past. There's a 'feeling' to it sometimes. That feeling hasn't been there since the NRL season restarted.
'Culture' is always used in its most extreme form. When a team is firing, it's a great culture. When a team is struggling over long periods, culture is the problem. Yet, nobody can tell you exactly what culture is. Again, there's a feeling to it. Whatever culture is to the Warriors, it feels as though it has vastly improved and that this challenging season can have a long-lasting impact on the club moving forward.
But aside from the off-field intangibles, we've seen genuine on-field reasons to be optimistic for the future.
Tohu Harris has again been outstanding and arguably the club's best player in 2020. Finally spending more time in the middle of the field, it's no surprise to see somebody with his skill set and work ethic thriving in an increasingly important lock position. Is 174 running metres per game this season is a career-high by more than 40 metres. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown took his opportunity to play regular first-grade minutes and turned it into a two-year extension. Peta Hikuis playing some of the best football of his career for his eight tries and eight try assists. So too is Adam Pompey who is making the most of David Fusitu'a and Ken Maumalolo's early return home.
Jack Murchie, while slow to start, has played himself into the first-choice 17 over the last month. Kodi Nikorima is unlikely to ever be a consistent high-performing half, but he's stringing together good games a lot more often in 2020. And of course, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. While his numbers are down on previous seasons, he's the most influential player at the club both on and off the field.
But amongst all of the promising performances of those above, this unique experience has allowed two young players to thrive and become the long-term options for the club in their position.
Eli Katoa had played just 13 games of rugby league in his life before making his NRL debut in Round 1. Coming off the bench to run for 144 metres while breaking four tackles and handing out two offloads, Katoa started the following week. He's had a handful of rookie moments and still has a lot of work to do around his timing as a hole-runner, but when he gets it right, he's already one of the toughest edge forwards to get to the ground.
The more the Warriors left edge plays together, the more we will see Katoa isolated onto opposition halves and using his size to either get up the field or cross the line.
The mid-season departure of Blake Green has allowed Chanel Harris-Tavita to take over the number seven jersey and put a case forward for being the first-choice halfback in 2021.
Lock him in.
He has all of the skills to dominate in the position. He's physical and prepared to take a shot when digging deep into the line. While he's not in the same realm as Nathan Cleary, Harris-Tavita has displayed similar qualities in the tempo he plays with and the sort of footwork that can create try-scoring opportunities for himself and others.
Harris-Tavita's kicking game is an equally underrated attribute. He beat Cleary and the Panthers at their own game to hang up an attacking kick for Tuivasa-Sheck in Round 14.
It's his maturity that has most impressed, though. Despite being just 21-years-old, he's taken over from Green to be the leading half in the side. He's playing the traditional role and playing it well. If anything, the coaching staff might ask Harris-Tavita to be more selfish and take the line on more often, just as they did with Nikorima earlier in the year.
In Katoa and Harris-Tavita, the Warriors have a lethal left-edge duo to build around. It won't be a surprise to see them link up in a similar fashion to this Tom Dearden and David Fifita combination in Round 19 a few times next season. A simple overs line to isolate Katoa onto the little man, and his size and strength getting him over the line:
The Warriors have produced more 'good' this season than anybody expected five months ago. By developing a resilience we've not seen at the club for a long time while blooding young players with an eye on the future, the Warriors can call this season a success.
While the 2020 season will be an unforgettable one in Warriors history, the defining moment may have come in early August when Todd Payten declined the offer to continue as head coach through 2021.
He's proven in his short time in charge that he's an elite manager of men and can draw inspired performances in the toughest of times. It won't be long before Payten is regarded as a top tier coach in the NRL. His honesty is refreshing and his no-nonsense approach is perfect for the Warriors right now.
The outlook for 2021 would be a lot different with Payten is involved.
Instead, the Warriors have been left with Nathan Brown. A master manipulator of the media and public perception, his on-field results leave a lot to be desired. He won back-to-back wooden spoons in his first two seasons with the Newcastle Knights. Nine wins in 2018 suggested an improvement. However, when carrying Top 8 expectations into 2019, he chose to play Kalyn Ponga out of position to start the season. It marked the start of Brown's downfall with two five-game losing streaks throughout the year ensuring he didn't finish it at the club.
Brown has since invited Craig Hodges into his coaching staff at the expense of Stacey Jones and Tony Iro. Hodges took over the Titans for the last eight weeks of the 2019 season losing all eight games. He also played around with the fullback position by opting to play Michael Gordon ahead of AJ Brimson throughout the losing streak.
The two coaches in charge of the Warriors to start 2021 are 2-14 across their last eight games as head coach.
While the Warriors have achieved great things to set up a sunny future, the departure of Payten is the largest gray cloud to come out of the 2020 season.
The 2020 Warriors, despite everything they have had to deal with throughout the year, were in the hunt for a finals spot right up to Round 18. Who knows what would have happened if Fusitu'a, Maumalo, Leeson Ah Mau, Bunty Afoa and Nathaniel Roache were available for more of the season.
Add Ben Murdoch-Masila and Addin Fonua-Blake to this group for 2021 and the Warriors are well on their way to returning to the Top 8.
"Rebuild" is a word synonymous with poorly performing teams looking for an excuse for extended losing periods. It's not a word the Warriors have used yet, and perhaps that's because they know that isn't what the club needs.
This group is in a position to win games in 2021.
They have the superstars in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Tohu Harris.
David Fusitu'a and Ken Maumalo are only 12 months removed from being one of the best wing combinations in the NRL.
Addin Fonua-Blake, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Leeson Ah Mau and Jamayne Taunoa-Brown is a prop rotation that can strike fear into the opposition.
Chanel Harris-Tavita should be the ten-year solution at halfback for the club while Kodi Nikorima is ever so slowly starting to produce consistent performances at five-eighth.
Jack Murchie and Eli Katoa have long futures in the game and will have greatly benefited from the regular first-grade football they've played in 2020.
Adam Pompey, Hayze Perham, Paul Turner and Junior Ratuva wait in the wings behind the first-choice side, ready to pounce if given the chance in 2021.
Euan Aitken and Kane Evans arrive for next season too.
The Warriors have a squad that can take everything they've achieved in 2020 and turn it into Top 8 contention in 2021. Unlike in his time with the Knights, Brown doesn't have the excuse of rebuilding. He can't call for patience. This team has proven it can win games and climb the ladder already.
Few thought we'd be here six months ago, but the Warriors will be setting the bar a lot higher than the 10th-13th they finish this season when turning up to preseason training.
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