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Saturday, 29 September 2018

NZ Warriors 2018 Season Review: A Welcomed step in the right Direction

Copyright Photo: Photosport
With the 2018 NRL Grand Final so close I decided it was the perfect time to comb through the Warriors 2018 and conduct my season review.
After seven years of disappointment, the Warriors gave fans more to smile about in 2018, and the Warriors have made a step in the right direction, but there is still lots of work on for the club as they prepare for 2019.
2018 was filled to the brim with talking points, so let's just get into the review.

My take on 2018

It is safe to say my morale took a hit at the end of 2017, I couldn't even put together a season review last year.
This tempered my confidence for the 2018 season, but the signings of Blake Green, Alex Corvo and Brian Smith did have me predict the Warriors to finish 7th (oh so close to a correct prediction).

Looking back at my season preview I highlighted the Warriors biggest weaknesses was their defence and conceding penalties.
The penalties were still an issue, but the defence was improved tenfold (more on that below), but there is still lots of room for improvement.

The Warriors started the season strong going 5-0 and looking like genuine title contenders until the Warriors of old made an appearance in a 50-10 disaster in Melbourne on Anzac day.
In this game the Storm showed the NRL the quickest way to dismantle the Warriors was by pushing the forward pack around, going over the season results all the Warriors most significant losses were also the matches that the forwards went missing.
This is an Attitude thing though as there were many games where the forwards had great performances so I'm confident that this will be addressed in the offseason and the recruitment of Leeson Ah Mau will undoubtedly add some much-needed starch to the pack.

It was good to see the Warriors left the 2017 gameplan back in 2017 and return with more attacking intent in 2018.
Changing that style unleashed the Warriors backline more specifically their back three, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck had an unbelievable season and thoroughly deserved the Dally M medal.
David Fusitu'a continued his world cup form and dominated the try scoring stats for the majority of the year, but my biggest surprise was the improvement in Ken Maumalo's game.
Big Ken always frustrated me, you could see what he was capable of in previous seasons.
Ken just could never sort his hands out but in 2017 but this season that all seemed to be in the past as he bulldozed his way into the hearts of all the fans with his strong runs out of the Warriors own half.
If he had a centre that liked to pass to him, he might have even added a few more tries to his tally.
This back three is arguably one of the best in the NRL, and I look forward to watching them develop even further next season.
Heading into 2019 the backline is set with there only being one change I would make (more on that below in my players to improve section).

The Warriors were a lot more consistent this season and thankfully never went on any long losing streaks like they had done in the past.
Getting wins across the ditch helped their campaign, and this needs to continue next season as well as improving their home performances, with the club reducing season ticket prices the odds are that the crowds are going to bigger for them so they will need to get those results if they want to keep the crowds rolling in.

The way the season ended in round one of the playoffs was disappointing and took the shine of the improved 2018, it had been seven years since they Warriors reached the playoffs and there was enough in the performances to show that it wasn't a one-off.
This season was the closest it has been in years with only two points separating the eight placed Warriors from the minor premier Roosters.
2018 was the starting point, Kearney has the players he wants, the Warriors have provided him with the staff he needs, and they will need to build on this season and be prepared for a hard road in 2019 as teams will not take them lightly in the early stages of the season like they did this year.

The Warriors farewelled Simon Mannering this year and hope that after some much deserved time off Simon returns to the club in some form as his experience and dedication would be a welcome resource.
Simon is one of the most respected players in the game and the young players coming through the grades at the Warriors could not find a better mentor.
Thank you for everything you have done for the club Simon, you are the standard that all Warriors players should look to, good luck with retirement.

My Positives for 2018

There were lots to praise in 2018, but I have narrowed it down to my top three.

Goal Line Defence

The most significant improvement in 2018 was the goal line defence by far, in 2017 if the opposition got into the Warriors 10 it was only a matter of time before the Warriors were huddled under the goalposts.
With their improved fitness and attitude in 2018, the Warriors made teams really fight for any points scored in the red zone.
Their confidence in their goal line defence allowed them to take short dropouts and while it didn't always work, they were still able to keep teams out repeatably.
The most prominent example is that playoff game against the Panthers, the Warriors spent 10-15 minutes defending on their goal line as their short drops outs weren't working, but the Panthers could not break through.
It all comes down to their attitude and desire, you could make a highlight reel of all the massive try saving stops from Roger this season, and that effort was matched by the majority of this side, please may it continue in 2019.
If the Warriors can improve their defence for the other 90 metres of the field, then they will be a force in 2019.

Improved Fitness

This could have arguably been number 1 as I think without the high fitness level the goal line defence would not have been at the level it was.
Thank you, Alex Corvo, for coming to the club bringing the Warriors up to the fitness level required to play 80 minutes, gone are the days where the Warriors died out in the final 20 minutes.
Fitness is the key in all sports, you cannot perform at your best when you are hunched over gasping for air.
The players have also got to be commended as they showed the desire to reach the level that Alex expected of them and I imagine how you react to those expectations dictates whether you are a first grader at the Warriors or looking elsewhere for employment.
The Warriors have had a season under Alex now and know what to expect when they arrive for preseason and should only grow in year two under his tutelage, and I look forward to seeing the results.

The Recruits

2018 saw lots of changes at the club, with the massive exodus of players in 2017 the Warriors welcomed several players that were key to their performance this season.
There wasn't a poor recruit in the batch in my opinion, and I think they all helped the Warriors improve in some way.
Tohu Harris, Blake Green and Adam Blair all brought experience and direction to the Warriors and will be critical players once again in 2019.
Leivaha Pulu and Agnatius Paasi brought much-needed firepower to the forward pack with Paasi being my forward of the year by a landslide.
Peta Hiku was a discussion point for the fan base (and more on him below), but his combination with Johnson, Harris and Fusitu'a was lethal if only his defence matched his attack.
Gerard Beale did not get to make an impact early on due to his injury from the World Cup but when given his chance he showed the class he provides, he is the change I would make in the backline for 2019 with him taking over from Kata in the centres.
Anthony Gelling and Karl Lawton were not used in a large capacity, but both had moments to shine during the season.
The quality of all these recruits has meant there hasn't been a lot of signings going into 2019 and the Warriors having a settled side with familiar combinations will give them a much-needed edge.

My Negatives for 2018

2018 wasn't all sunshine and rainbows though which brings me to my 3 biggest negatives.

Bullying of the Pack

This was the biggest concern for me all year and whenever the opposition walked all over the Warriors forward pack the Warriors were on their way to a comprehensive defeat.
It wasn't the skill of the players as this pack put on dominating performances throughout the season they just need to do it at a consistent level.
It's not an easy job but the pack needs to be on top every week if the Warriors want to win the premiership, they have the backline to do it the forwards just need to do their part.
Ah Mau will help, and I see him and Paasi starting with James Gavet and Bunty Afoa being the two other key players in the forward rotation, I think Tohu, Pulu and Blair with form the second and back row with Interchange player of the year Jazz Tevaga adding from the interchange once again.

Anzac day loss

50-10, I don't know why but the Warriors never seem to perform on Anzac day, playing Melbourne is always going to be a tough task, but after such an excellent start to the season, I did not see a 40 point defeat on the cards.
It started a trend in 2018 where the Warriors seemed to struggle in games that began with long presentations, this needs to address in the preseason as they need to improve this if the Warriors make the Grand Final they will need to be able to perform after all the hoopla that precedes that match.
I guess it all comes down to their preparation and attitude and on the positive side of things, it is something that can be worked on.

Titans and Bulldogs losses

The round 20 and 23 losses to the Titans and Bulldogs, man oh man this is a sure-fire what if scenario.
The Warriors should have won these matched, and if they had, you could argue that they could have secured the Minor Premiership for only the second time in their history.
Im not sure what happened but I put it down to attitude, I think that they may have already thought they had these games won before they even started playing.
In fairness, I thought that these games were going to be easy wins myself but in the NRL you can not take any team lightly, and this is another problem I hope they address and fix in the offseason.

My Top Three Warriors for the season

Many players put their hands up this season, but I have narrowed it down to three.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Copyright Photo: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

It should come as no surprise that Roger gets top billing here.
The 2018 Dally M winner had a fantastic season and took strides in growing as a Captain.
I don't think a single player has won as many Warriors of the game from me in my years writing about this club, but he was head and shoulders above the rest of the team week in and week out.
His contribution on attack was vital for the Warriors, but it was his defence that stood out for me, countless times this season he made try-saving tackles that helped stop oppositions turning the tide on this side.
Being the first Warrior to win the Dally M is a nice bit of history for Roger to claim and it will help with the Warrior recruitment on the future as it shows the players across the ditch that you can come here and still get your performance rewarded.
I look forward to Roger adding to his historical firsts as the first Warriors captain to lead this club to a premiership.

Issac Luke

What a year for Issac, after being unfit and overweight in his first few years with the Warriors Issac came into 2018 in terrific shape and it showed in his performance.
Throughout 2018 I referred to Issac as the glue, and I genuinely believe he was, when Issac was out there he was the difference, his sniping dummy half runs open up so many opportunities for the back line to strike and the team lost a step when he wasn't playing.
I hope that Issac is still around in 2019 and it appears that he is close to agreeing to a deal with the club.
A fit Issac still has plenty left in the tank, and I could think of no better mentor for the young hookers in the club to learn from.

David Fusitu'a

23 tries in 22 matches, NRL's top try scorer David Fusitu'a is among the best finishers in the game and shows no signs of slowing down.
David has grown so much in such a short time will be a crucial contributor for the Warriors for years to come.
His ability to score those diving tries with no room in the corner is breathtaking, and it's hard to believe a player of his size can do the things he can, but I look forward to watching him continue to develop.
That Warriors right edge is deadly, and I expect lots of points out of them in 2019.

My Three Warriors who need to Improve

There wasn't as many to pick from as in previous seasons, but I have three Warriors who have work to do.

Solomona Kata
Copyright Photo: Stuff

Kata is the only change I would make to this side if I were in charge, coming into 2018 I didn't have him in my 17, and I stick with that opinion.
This year was a highlight reel for Kata putting himself before the team with countless examples of ignoring overlaps and running out of dummy half on the fifth tackle.
I would love to say that Kata can learn and be a team player but he has been quoted as saying that he will always back himself and run himself.
I commend his confidence, but I would rather see him give the ball to someone in a better scoring position than dying with the ball.
Kata also still rushes out of the defence line and places extra pressure on Ken Maumalo defensively.
Solomona has a lot to work on in the offseason I just don't think he has it in him.
He saved his worst performance for the playoff match against the Panthers and showed he is not first grade level in my eyes.
I would have Beale come into the side in his place for 2019 which would solve that problem.

Sam Lisone

Sam is at a crossroads in his career with the Warriors, 2018 was the year for Sam to cement his spot as one of the Warriors go to props, but he let himself down with silly errors and ill-discipline.
He still has a lot of potential, but with the rest of the props in the squad performing at a higher level, I don't see him getting another crack anytime soon, and he may well be the next player we see moving on.
I hope that isn't the case but time will tell.

Peta Hiku

Lastly is Peta Hiku or should I say Peta Hiku on defence.
Peta was a key contributor on attack for the Warriors, but his defence was the worst of any player in the side by a landslide.
Playing at the Panthers his defence was never as poor as it was this season and maybe it is down to coming back from Super League Im not sure, but I expect a better effort from him next season.
I still rate Peta and would have him on the right edge in 2019 he just needs to work on that defence.

In Summary

2018 was a good starting point for the club to build on.
Going from only seven wins in 2017 to fifteen this season shows that this side is a better place now.
The building blocks are in place, and the team can go on to bigger and greater things in 2019.
The club is doing all the right things from an office standpoint, and with the decreased season ticket prices for 2019, I expect a more significant uptake in memberships (If your able to go grab a season ticket and get to as many games as you can next year).

This year was a standout for me in regards to my reviews too with so many of you reading and offering your thoughts every week, and I cannot thank you enough.
I got to meet so many Warriors fans this year that read my blogs and its great to be able to meet up at the games and events and talk about this team that we love and follow, and I hope to meet more of you in 2019.

A big thanks need to go to the other fans I have met that write or speak about this club, the View from the East Stand crew for bringing me on the Podcast several times this season, hopefully, that is something that continues in the future.
Charlie and the New Zealand Warriors Diehards and the Faithers crew for always sharing my reviews every week and all the other Warriors facebook pages that allow me to share my work on their pages.

Im exciting for 2019 will bring, and I look forward to talking to you all again soon, Im not sure how much Warriors writing will happen until my preseason review next year but I will be posting reviews on the upcoming Kiwis games for the first time which I'm looking forward to.

So that was my take on 2018, and as usual, I will leave you with some questions.

What are your thoughts on the 2018 Season?
Who was your Player of the year?
Which Player was your biggest disappointment?
How do you see the 2019 season going?

Monday, 10 September 2018

NZ Warriors Finals Week 1 Review: Panthers pile pressure on shell shocked Warriors

Copyright Photo: Getty Images
After last weeks great Mount Smart send-off for Simon Mannering, the Warriors ended their seven-year drought from playoff football and found themselves in Sydney for round one of the playoffs facing the Penrith Panthers.
Predictions on both sides of the Tasman had the Warriors as slight favourites to take this match, but the Panthers took advantage of a swing of momentum and never let go as they ran away with a 25-12 victory.

Well, that wasn't the result I was expecting or the way I saw the Warriors exiting the playoffs, but they are now out of the playoff race.
The Warriors started well, and it looked like they were on track to get the result until Roger Tuivasa-Sheck got injured and Solomona Kata got penalised for an incorrect play the ball.
From that point on it seemed that everything fell apart for the Warriors and the Panthers produced a great performance, playing almost completely error-free football and starved the Warriors of possession and territory for the majority of the second half.

In playoff football there is no tomorrow, you need to deliver on the night or become an afterthought and unfortunately, the combination of RTS's injury, experienced players making poor decisions and errors and the Panthers not giving away penalties or making mistakes made this too steep a mountain to climb.
Pitchforks have been out for Shaun Johnson, but I think heaping all the blame onto one player is unfair, yes he had a poor performance once the tide changed in this match, but the team lost this game, and several players had shocking displays.
Im hoping that the players take all they can from this match and learn from it and use it in preparation for 2019 which leads me to my positives from the game.

To be honest, I over have two positives from the match.

The Warriors started the match well, despite the Panthers getting the first points thanks to a Paasi penalty the Warriors fired back with two tries in quick succession showing that dangerous threat they can be when the team is firing on all cylinders.

Lastly, I want to praise the Warriors defence, in the second half, the Panthers had the ball for what felt like the majority of the time including one stage where they had five sets in a row.
Despite all of these sets, the Warriors conceded only one try in that second half, the Warriors of old would have spent most of that second half under the goalposts counting down the seconds until they could get off the field as the opposition repeatedly crossed the try line.
If the Warriors can bring that type of defensive effort to every game next year they will be well on their way to giving a better playoff performance.

That is all I have for my positives so I will get into my negatives.

The errors, man oh man the errors were painful to watch.
At times it felt like the Warriors couldn't do anything right.
Incorrect play the balls, silly offloads and penalties plus kicking the ball out on full from kickoff were schoolboy errors and should not be happening in the NRL let alone in the finals.
Maybe it was due to finals jitters or fatigue from the excessive defence but these errors are coach killers, and they need to be eradicated before the beginning of the 2019 season.

The forwards were gunshy, they played well until Kearney took Paasi and Gavet off.
Once these two were off, you could see the difference in the side, and by the time they returned to the field, it was too late.
As the cliche goes if the forwards don't set the platform the dangerous backline cannot be unleashed.
Shaun struggles behind a flat pack, and the Panthers (and the entire NRL) know this, and they bullied the Warriors pack to keep Johnson constantly on the backfoot.
On a positive note, Leeson Ah Mau had an excellent game for the Dragons in their annihilation of the Broncos and will add some much-needed firepower to the Warriors forwards.

Which actually leads me to my last negative, Ah Mau will be of no use if Kearney doesn't sort out his interchange rotation.
Perhaps with Simon's exit, it may be easier for Kearney to juggle a 17 that isn't stacked with second rowers.
Hopefully, this an addressed in the offseason and a better rotation is set for 2019.

Copyright Photo: Photosport
My Warrior of the game goes to Jazz Tevaga.
I have been critical at times this season of Jazz but what a display of heart he showed in this match.
He packs a punch despite his small stature and when the forwards around him were being dominated he continued to push his way through the defensive line, while also being one of the top tacklers in the match.
He still hasn't signed a new deal but im hopeful that he sticks around as he is a hard worker and I'm optimistic that his heart and desire is infectious and the rest of the squad inherit it.

Copyright Photo: Getty Images
My Warrior who needed to improve could have gone to several players, but I have gone with Solomona Kata.
First things first thank you for reading my reviews Solomona as after drilling you to pass the ball for the last two weeks you started this match passing the ball to Ken Maumalo repeatably, unfortunately, you still ran him out of space before giving him the ball.
Everything Kata did in this match went wrong, I'm not sure if the occasion got to him but his first two runs resulted in a penalty for the incorrect play the ball and a knock on.
I have been critical of Kata all year, and I still would rather have Hiku and Beale as the centres for 2019.
I would like to say that Kata can learn from this year and return in 2019 a better player but I just don't believe it.
This team's mantra all year was about being a unit, playing for each other and working together and Kata has continuously shown that he is all about the individual, he is the one player I would remove from the current 17.
Hopefully, something changes in the offseason, but I just don't see it happening with him.

So that's it, no more games for 2018.
It's a horrible way to bow out of the season, but I don't want it to overshadow the season that the Warriors have had.
They were the laughing stock of the NRL before the season got underway and they ended their season this weekend with one of the best away records in the NRL.
I don't want to go over the season too much here as I will be doing that in more detail in my season review in a week or two.
In regards to how the playoffs will go now, I'm not too sure, I still think the Storm and Roosters have the biggest shot at taking out the title, but the Dragons looked good this week also so it could be anyone's game.

Lastly, before I go, I want to thank all of you that have been reading my thoughts this season.
2018 has been a fantastic year so far for my little writing page, and all the people I have got to meet through my blog have made this a season to remember, and I hope it continues.
I usually go into hibernation once the Warriors season ends but I want to keep posting my ramblings throughout the offseason so I'm open to suggestions on what people would like me to write about until the Warriors return (Top tens list on the Warriors? International Match reviews?)

So that was my take on an unfortunate Finals week, and as usual, I will leave you with some questions.

Who was your player to Improve?
Which teams will be in the Grand Final?
What are your overall feelings on the 2018 season?
What would you like to read on here during the offseason?

Monday, 3 September 2018

NZ Warriors Round 25 Review: Warriors celebrate Mannering Milestone with scrappy victory

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After guaranteeing a return to the playoffs with last weeks win over the Panthers, the Warriors were home once again at Mount Smart for the final round of the regular season against the Canberra Raiders.
Canberra came into the match as giant killers with recent wins against the Rabbitohs and the Roosters, so this was always going to be a tough match for the home side.
The pressure was on the Warriors with a sellout crowd there to celebrate not only the Warriors return to playoff football but Simon Mannering's 300th game.
It wasn't a pretty game, but the Warriors pulled through to ensure that Simon's last ever game at Mt Smart was a victory as they came away with a 20-16 win.

For the first time since I started writing my weekly reviews the Warriors are playing finals football, and as a fan, I cannot wait for this weekend.
This game wasn't a great game from the Warriors, but I think this tough contest was just what the Warriors needed in the lead up to week one of the finals.
The Warriors have struggled this year in matches with extended intros so with the much deserved prematch fanfare for Simon, and perhaps the Warriors let the occasion get to them however unlike those other times the Warriors showed git and determination and held on to get the win for Simon.

Before I get to my Match Positives, I just what to highlight Simon.
It is hard to describe the impact you have had not only on this fans life but all Warriors fans, in times when the Warriors were the laughing stock of the New Zealand sport, Simon was always spoken of in high regard because his class and dedicated was always evident.
Thank you, Simon, for everything you have done for this club, in the dark times you were the shining light, and it is excellent that the Warriors are in the playoffs for what it is your final year.
I hope you enjoy your retirement, but before that, there is still work to be done in 2018.

I could spend hours talking about Simon but back onto Round 25 and more on point my positives.

After 24 rounds of complaining about the missed tackles, the Warriors came through for me and delivered through lowest missed tackle tally for the year only missing ten in this match.
Defensively I thought the Warriors performed great, they were hitting the large Raiders pack and driving them backwards which did take some sting out of the Raiders set's, there was still the occasional lapse in judgement, but it was an improvement on previous rounds.
Despite less possession, the Warriors dominated the Raiders in run meters and tackle breaks, with Agnatius Paasi and Tohu Harris leading the way and the entire back five running for over 100 meters.
Speaking of Paasi, he also got to play more minutes but more on that below.
Also as mentioned above the match was tough which I think prepares the Warriors better for the playoffs than a blow out would have.
Once you hit that elimination football, there will be games where things don't go your way, and you need to dig deep to get the result.
The Warriors will be able to lean on this game (and come to think of it there first match up with the Raiders earlier this season) and use their experience in tough encounters to get the edge on the opposition.

That is all I have for my highlights right now (I always think of more after I upload) which brings me to my negatives from the match.

Even though the missed tackles were down the unforced errors were too high for finals football, they managed to keep the penalty count reasonably low, but now that they are into elimination football the Warriors will need to ensure they give the opposition possession as little as possible.
The execution of the plays seemed a bit off, perhaps the occasion got to them, or the safety net of their guaranteed playoff spot allowed them to got on cruise control at times, not a huge criticism however as when push came to shove the Warriors turned on and got the job done.

Shaun's goal kicking was a concern with Shaun only convert one of the three tries scored, every point counts, so Shaun needs to bring his conversion rate up to around the 80% from now on.

Lastly, in what seems to be my new pet peeve is Solomona Kata once again ignoring a huge overlap for Ken Maumalo and going it himself, he scored thankfully, but I feel that a butchered try is just around the corner and I don't want that to be the difference between winning and losing.
I will preach it until I die but the team comes before the individual.

Copyright Photo:
My Warrior of the game goes to Agnatius Paasi.
Paasi had yet another strong game as I stated in my match positives.
Playing for 57 minutes and running for 177 metres, Paasi had a considerable impact on this match and put his hand up in my eyes to be in the discussion for best Warriors signing of 2018.
Paasi is always working, matching his big runs with plenty of tackles.
I'm hopeful that this form will continue in the upcoming weeks and that the rest of the prop rotation start to emulate it as the Warriors will be hard to stop with that kind of platform being set.

Copyright Photo:
My Warrior to improve goes to Jazz Tevaga.
It was hard to pick out a Warrior to improve this week, but Jazz made a few silly errors including a dreadful mistake from the back of a scrum and ignoring a large overlap and trying to go himself unsuccessfully.
I like having Jazz in the Warriors 17, but I still feel he is better suited in smaller bursts instead of 60 or more minutes right in the middle of the game.
He is still young, and learning and I know he will have a strong game this week.

The first week of the finals has the Warriors heading to Sydney to face the Penrith Panthers.
I'm always wary of Penrith and this week is no exception, they have a good side and this year they are currently 1-1 in matches against the Warriors, beating the New Zealand 36-4 in round 17 and then losing 36-16 just last week.

The Warriors are not a team I would want to face in elimination football right now though as they currently have the best form in the competition winning four of their last five games.
They should welcome back Blake Green and James Gavet this week, and Simon Mannering and Roger Tuivasa Sheck should be cleared to play this week after suffering injuries during the Raiders match.
A full strength Warriors side will be tough but the Panthers are coming into this match full of confidence after defeating the Storm in the final round so this will be an exciting, tight contest.
I'm going to give it to the Warriors through and pick them to win by 8 this week and to go into week two of the finals to face the loser of the Roosters vs Sharks encounter.
If you are in Sydney, make sure you get down to support the Warriors in this must-win game.

So that was my take on a scrappy Round 25, and as usual, I will leave you with some questions.

Who was your player of the game?
What is your confidence level for the Warriors playoff chances?
Which teams do you see making the Grand Final?
What is your score prediction for Finals Week one?