After an seven season hiatus from the knock-out stages, the Vodafone NZ Warriors are headed to the 2018 Telstra NRL Premiership finals.
Results from this weekend, including a strong home win over the Penrith Panthers 36-16, all assisted the team to realize the potential of a successful start to the season. The win was the sides 14th win, after 23 rounds of the NRL season.
Good news for rugby league in New Zealand (NZ) too, at least for the Auckland-based club. In relation to last years Rugby League World Cup and some negative feelings over the last administration. Their fanbase had dwindled over the last few years, even with the inclusion of Stephen Kearney and skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Yet, after the thrilling win and a huge boost in support, the side are heading to the big-time.
NZ Warriors are headed to the Telstra NRL Premiership Finals
Beside the recent success – which was never a sure thing with the NZ Warriors’ recent record – fans and commentators have been impressed by the club from the beginning of 2018. Good signings and a positive attitude have served to collect more wins, and wins of significance.
away wins such as Perth, Townsville and Wollongong, have all been admired due to some being a first-ever. The clubs 8-4 wining record one that many opposing teams would wish to hold. Unique wins away from home; many in succession, were great at the time, and now at the right end of the season, the good times continues.
Team culture is high. Player fitness is a benefit. Isaac Luke overcame his injuries, as has Tohu Harris. And having Shaun Johnson fit in September is going to be the assurance that past seasons have lacked. The halfback is the catalyst for so much attack, his role is as consequential as a Jonathon Thurston or Billy Slater.
It is not all Johnson now at the warriors too. In years past, he carried the team, but in 2018 the weight is shared. Blake Gibson has been the revelation, and a balance to the halves planning by Kearney and assistant Stacey Jones.
Fans return to Mt Smart Stadium in 2018
Friday night was a sell-out. As have been many other home games, with good support offshore where ex-pat Kiwis have returned to the NZ team. Now the NZ Warriors are headed to the Telstra NRL Premiership Finals, support will skyrocket even further.
Mt Smart has not been the most popular event in Auckland, but now in comparison to the Blues or Breakers, the Warriors are a ‘hot ticket’. This reporter went along to the Melbourne Storm clash, and even while that was a loss – it was an entertaining and rousing event.
This weekend’s fixture against the Canberra Raiders will no doubt be SOLD OUT before game day. It also gives the team several opportunities to use strategies; now that the team are headed to the Telstra NRL Premiership Finals.
Stephen Kearney could do many things. He could:
rest Shaun Johnson. An exhausted star is not what fans want to see in October
ask his team to play within themselves. Why break a bone, when their place is secure
go for broke! A big win will help the +/- points differential. Thus, where they finish in 2018
Scenarios cannot be guessed, so planning for many variables is key. Although, little finals experience means that the team do not have the luxury of an Melbourne Storm, Cronulla Sharks or South Sydney experience to rely on. Even the Broncos, Roosters, Dragons and Panthers must be still wary of allowing others to gain a beneficial finals placing.
Finish as high as fourth, and that means either a home final or the chance to play fourth or third place – rather than the Premiers [if you are seventh or eighth]. So if Kearney asks his men to play ‘option 3’ then it might pay dividends. Option 1 is strong, as a fit Johnson is also important…..but a big win might only come, by including Shaun in the selection.
But the NZ Warriors of 2018 are not just about Johnson, Green, Luke or Tuivasa-Sheck, Bunty Afoa (see main picture), Ken Maumalo and Mason Lino. Try scoring supremo David Fusitua is still leading the pack; his 21 tries place him above stars like Valentine Holmes or Robert Jennings.
David Fusitua has scored 11 try’s in 9 games this year which is tied for the most withJosh Addo-Carr.
Can Fus finish the year as the leading try scorer? #WarriorNation #SportsTalkNZ pic.twitter.com/vKMpAlegiF
— SportsTalkNZ (@NZ_SportsTalk) May 7, 2018
Fitness and Stamina now a Warriors Strength
Renowned trainer Alex Corvo has instilled a level of physical and mental toughness that is envied by others. That aspect, as much as the back office and positive message from the club, is taking the team to heights not seen since 2011.
Fitness and stamina allow the side to benefit from the interchange bench. Afoa can charge on to offer support players like Adam Blair or former captain Simon Mannering. Support play, runs from dummy half and leaping for the ball, are all factors that training and fitness can be directly related.
Several of the senior players, whom in the past may have seen less game time to preserve their fitness, can now run hard for 65 or more minutes. That ensures that the best XIII players are on the field. And that prime selection is epitomized most by Mannering (see below image). Fresh off announcing his retirement from the NRL [after retiring from the International game earlier in the year] he is an example all other players hope to emulate.
A veteran of 299 games, he will be the first Warriors player to reach 300 games. Joining the likes of Cameron Smith, Steve Menzies, Brad Fittler and ex-Warrior Ryan Hoffman in the exclusive club.
Retiring ‘man of steel’ Mannering to be honoured
A huge honour but….no matter the outcome Friday. But already earning a finals place, is what Mannering is most pleased about. He told Fairfax Media, “I’m just stoked for the guys.
“Since 2011, I’ve probably put too much pressure on myself and us as a team, to reach the Grand Final and win it. Every team wants to win the Grand Final, so I’m just so happy that the young guys in this team will get to taste that.”
“Once you get into September, all bets are off and anything can happen.”
But gladly, even after the 2018 Telstra NRL Premiership season ends, the NZ Warriors should all be proud. They have recreated the faith. The style of play, the energy and enjoyment, and none of the past huge let downs. It will mean that when the knockout stages are finalized, this 2018 NZ Warriors squad will be in a much better place to ‘go for gold’.
NZ Warriors v Canberra Raiders – Friday August 31. Mt Smart Stadium
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images