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2022 New Zealand Warriors Preview

The New Zealand Warriors are set to spend another season away from home, based at the home at the new NRL Dolphins franchise. Will Shaun Johnson’s return culminate in playing finals football?

After spending the past two seasons on Australian soil, the Warriors look set to do it again in their new home base in Redcliffe. The chance to return to Mount Smart in July will be a welcome boost as they aim for a top-eight finish for the first time since 2018.

2022 WARRIORS SQUAD

Bunty Afoa, Euan Aitken, Jesse Arthars (loan – Brisbane Broncos), Rocco Berry, Josh Curran, Wayde Egan, Lleyton Finau, Addin Fonua-Blake, Tohu Harris, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Shaun Johnson, Eliesa Katoa, Otukinekina Kepu, Valingi Kepu, Edward Kosi, Matthew Lodge, Marcelo Montoya, Jack Murchie, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Kodi Nikorima, Taniela Otukolo, Aaron Pene, Pride Petterson-Robati, Adam Pompey, Iliesa Ratuva, Bayley Sironen, Ashley Taylor, Jazz Tevaga, Viliami Vailea, Reece Walsh, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.

KEY SIGNING

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The announcement that Shaun Johnson was returning to the Warriors took many by surprise. However, after three years with the Cronulla Sharks, the prodigal son has returned. Johnson comes back a different player, a more settled, experienced half that doesn’t solely rely on the razzle and dazzle to make an impact on matches. The New Zealand side success will rely heavily on his kicking game, more specifically his short kicks, which has been a weakness for the Warriors since his exit in 2018. His combination with Reece Walsh will have many defenders wary. Johnson has had concerns with injuries, managing only 44 games in the three years at Cronulla, so Warriors fans will have their fingers crossed that he can stay healthy.

Signings: Shaun Johnson (Cronulla Sharks), Aaron Pene (Melbourne Storm), Ashley Taylor (Gold Coast Titans), Jesse Arthars (Brisbane Broncos – On Loan)

Departures: Leeson Ah Mau (retired), Kane Evans (Hull FC), David Fusitu’a (Leeds Rhinos), Peta Hiku (North Queensland Cowboys), Sean O’Sullivan (Penrith Panthers), Jamayne Taunoa-Brown (North Queensland Cowboys), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Rugby Union)

KEY PLAYER

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My player that will be key for the Warriors success is Addin Fonua-Blake, the Warriors 2021 marquee signing only managed 15 matches for the New Zealand side last season but did average 160 metres a game and was vital in getting the Warriors marching up the field; he also pulled his weight in the defensive department, ending the season with 96.8% tackle efficiency. If he can do this again in 2022, the Warriors will have the time to get their backline into open space and scoring opportunities.

PLAYER TO WATCH

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My player to watch is Ashley Taylor, Taylor came into the NRL with plenty of promise, but that slowly faded as he struggled in his role as the key playmaker for the Gold Coast Titans and the expectations that came with the size of his contract. After being released from his contract, his time in the NRL appeared to be over until the Warriors threw him a lifeline, offering a train and train deal that was turned into a one-year contract after impressing the New Zealand sides coaching staff. There are no guarantees that Taylor will walk into the matchday 17, and he may be used as injury cover for the season. This is his shot at reinvigorating his NRL career and should provide an interesting story to keep an eye on this season.

DRAW

Dragons (H), Titans (A), Tigers (A), Broncos (H), Cowboys (H), Roosters (A), Storm (A), Raiders (H), Sharks (A), Rabbitohs (Magic Round), Dragons (A), Knights (H), Sea Eagles (A), Sharks (H), Panthers (H), Tigers (H), Eels (A), Raiders (A), Storm (H), Rabbitohs (A), Bulldogs (H), Cowboys (A), Panthers (A), Titans (H).

PREVIEW

The Warriors come into the 2022 season more prepared; with the borders to New Zealand still closed, the club decided to remain in Australia when the 2021 season ended to ensure they could hit the preseason with as few distractions as possible.

Their 2021 season showed glimpses of promise, but they struggled to keep the same side on the field week in and week out, resulting in inconsistent performances. Coach Nathan Brown has now had a full season with his team, so we should expect an improvement in his team selections this season. The Warriors have plenty of depth in their side now, particularly in the forward pack; despite several players leaving the club at the end of 2021, they still have question marks around the hooker and centre positions. The addition of Jesse Arthars on a loan deal from the Broncos will help in the centres, with Rocco Berry and Viliami Vailea still learning the ropes. The forward pack is stacked with talent, Fonua-Blake and Matt Lodge make an imposing front row, and the signing of Aaron Pene strengthens their prop rotation. The likes of Josh Curran, Eliesa Katoa, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Euan Aitken will all be fighting for the second-row positions while Jazz Tevaga looks likely to hold onto the lock spot while new skipper Tohu Harris recovers from a ruptured ACL which will see him out of contention until May.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is a massive loss to the club, but they have a superstar in the making in Reece Walsh to take his place; Warriors’ fans will be avoiding the term second-year syndrome when discussing the livewire fullback.

The Warriors have a favourable start to their campaign, facing only one top-eight side in the first five rounds (the Gold Coast Titans). Their campaign gets harder in Rounds six and seven with back-to-back matches against the Roosters and Storm. Rounds eight to 14 could make or break their season with winnable games against the Raiders (H), Sharks (A), Dragons (A) and Knights (H), but they must face the Rabbitohs (Magic Round) and the Sea Eagles (A). The Warriors were planning on playing their last five home matches back in New Zealand but with the recent border news, it looks like the Round 15 clash against the Panthers will not be able to be at Mount Smart and instead the first game in Auckland since August of 2019 will be the Round 16 match against the Wests Tigers. This will be a massive shot in the arm for the club and its fans alike, and you would expect the four games in Auckland to be sell-outs. After their bye in round 17, the New Zealand side has a tough road home for the final eight rounds facing the Eels (A), Raiders (A), Storm (H), Rabbitohs (A), Bulldogs (H), Cowboys (A), Panthers (A) before going into the final round just like they did in 2021 with a match against the Titans (H).

The Warriors don’t have the easiest draw but did show in patches last season that they have the talent and skillset to go toe to toe with the top sides in the competition. 2021 saw the Warriors suffer a handful of blowouts which they need to ensure does not happen this season. If they can improve their defence, discipline and the squad stay injury-free, they should be able to make a return to finals football.

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