7. The Warriors
After years of false starts they finally displayed just what they are capable of in 2011 – and having gone oh so close to a maiden premiership expect the Warriors to keep their foot on the accelerator in 2012. The Kiwi-based boys showed dazzling flair and outstanding commitment to rocket from seventh place to an unlikely grand final berth. Their entertaining brand of football – punishing forward forays backed up by solo brilliance and hot-potato passing – quickly established them as every NRL fan’s ‘second’ team. Whereas other recent grand finalists Parramatta and the Roosters fell apart the year after making the decider, the Warriors appear determined to become a consistent top-eight force.
Why the Warriors will be a force in 2012
1. They’re still hurting
The Warriors were the sensations of 2011, reaching just their second NRL Grand Final and showing fighting spirit to frighten the Sea Eagles with a stirring comeback in the second half of the decider. Their mission now is to not fall away, like past runners-up Parramatta and Sydney Roosters did in their follow-up seasons, but rather become an entrenched top-four club like the Storm, Broncos and Dragons. Certainly they have the troops. And their squad will still be aching at how close they went to carrying off their premiership dream. Hurt can be a great motivator if used wisely. Throw in the vital ingredient of self-belief and it would be a brave fan who wagered money against the Warriors at least playing semi-finals football in 2012.
2. A Friend in need
The Warriors’ investment in former Titan Nathan Friend could well prove the NRL buy of the decade. Aaron Heremaia and Lance Hohaia provided them with some flair and creativity over the past few seasons but the Warriors have sorely missed a true general around the ruck – and Friend is one with five stars. Few players are as involved; he missed most of last season with a troublesome shoulder injury but in 2010 his 2789 receives were the most by any player – and a whopping 330 touches more than next best, Matt Ballin from the Sea Eagles. The benchmark in the NRL last year was Wests Tiger Robbie Farah with 2558. With Friend seizing control, expect the Warriors’ pack to make a statement with relentless rolls through the centre and on the edges of the ruck. They’ll retain their shape and continuity all game too – whereas Heremaia and Hohaia shared the role and averaged a little more than 50 minutes on the field each, Friend clocks on for the full 80. And he was the Titans’ top defender, averaging more than 40 tackles a game. Yep, he’s their new best Friend.
3. Brian McClennan
They say a change is as good as a holiday. While the Warriors were never fatigued or stale under Ivan Cleary, and everyone exited 2011 with a bunch of happy snaps, the Kiwis will certainly benefit from the changeover to a new mentor. Countryman Brian McClennan will not be short of passion in his efforts to make the Warriors a consistent NRL powerhouse and he has the credentials to back it up: his coaching apprenticeship included guiding Leeds to two Grand Final victories in the English Super League, not to mention the Kiwis’ watershed Tri Nations title in 2005 – at the time New Zealand’s first series win over Australia in 27 years. A fierce competitor, the 49-year-old also guided the ‘Exiles’ – a composite Kiwi/Australian side comprising players in the ESL – to a victory over England in the inaugural Origin-like clash last June.
4. Competition from within
The Warriors had a settled player unit in 2011 and boasted several outstanding stars in Kevin Locke, Shaun Johnson, Feleti Mateo and James Maloney – but new coach Brian McClennan has indicated nothing is carved in stone for 2012. He may be half-foxing, given that quartet’s huge contributions, but McClennan also knows a new breed is ready to bust out of their Toyota Cup eggshells and greet the limelight of the NRL. The young Warriors went back-to-back in the NYC last year and six players – Ben Henry, Samiuela Lousi, Konrad Hurrell, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Carlos Tuimavave – have been included in their top squad of 25 this time around. Then there’s speedster Glenn Fisiiahi, who was earmarked for the No.1 jersey before injury handed Locke his chance last year. The trio of Locke, Vatuvei and Fisiiahi would give the Warriors one of the speediest and most powerful back threes in the league. Throw in Johnson’s blistering pace and they are dangerous from anywhere on the park.
5. Their cavalier style
Statistics can be misleading. On face value they don’t reveal the Warriors to be too much of a threat. In fact last year the Warriors managed no better than seventh best in nearly all the key attacking categories, such as points scored, tries scored, line-breaks, tackle-breaks and metres gained. All except one: offloads – where they tied with the Panthers at the top of the list. And that’s how they’ve built their reputation as the entertainers of the NRL. Feleti Mateo proved a perfect fit for their brand last year, topping the competition with 85 offloads – 17 clear of next best Corey Parker from the Broncos. With their new coach confirming second-phase play will remain the cornerstone of their attack in 2012 they just need Mateo to stay injury-free to light up the competition again.