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What becomes of the broken hearted Warriors
Producing their best half of the season followed by their worst, the Warriors will be looking to bounce back against a Dragons outfit lacking the class of several star players. Returning to Waikato for the first time since 2014, the New Zealanders will be out to make amends for their dismal second half showing against the Panthers, where the side conceded 30 points to lose having established a seemingly impenetrable lead at halftime. Resisting the urge to make wide-sweeping changes, coach Stephen Kearney has brought Ken Maumalo back into the starting side at the expense of the injured Solomone Kata in an otherwise identical squad. Entering his final season with the Warriors, experienced forward will play his 200th match in the NRL after debuting back in 2008 as a 19-year-old, while Bodene Thompson will celebrate his 50th appearance for the club after previous stints with the Titans and Tigers.
While the result may not have gone their way last Friday, the Dragons showed remarkable tenacity to push the defending premiers to the very end. Having led heading into the final 10 minutes of the Cronulla encounter, coach Paul McGregor will be stressing the importance of establishing and maintaining a lead, while resisting the urge to conjure low-percentage plays in the hopes of pulling off victory at the death. Following on from the injuries to Josh Dugan and Gareth Widdop, exciting centre Euan Aitken is set to spend time on the sidelines with a hamstring issue. In his place, Taane Milne will line up at right centre, with Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa coming into the squad for his first appearance of 2017. With speculation linking Dugan to Cronulla, don't be surprised to see Matt Dufty come into the final team for his first grade debut after impressing in the lower grades.
Who to watch: With over 100 games of first grade experience and a wealth of highlights for the Kiwis, Shaun Johnson has defined the Warriors since coming into first grade. Leading the club to a grand final in his rookie season, the Warriors have since been through four coaches in the past five years without qualifying for the finals. As the marquee player of the club, the brilliance Johnson is capable of is often mitigated by his inability to turn narrow losses into wins. If the Warriors are to succeed under Stephen Kearney, the seasoned halfback has to stand up and deliver.
To think that Paul Vaughan was forced to spend time in reserve grade at the Raiders seems unfathomable given his 2017 form. Shifting to Wollongong over the off-season, the 26-year-old Country prop has been outstanding over the opening ten weeks of the competition, to the extent that a strong performance on Friday night could seal his place in the NSW team for the opening State of Origin fixture. Producing a stellar showing alongside his departing bookend Russell Packer last Friday, expect Vaughan to thrive and demand selection in the NSW squad.
1. Roger Tuivasa-sheck 2. Charnze Nicoll-klokstad 3. Blake Ayshford 4. David Fusitua 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Kieran Foran 7. Shaun Johnson 17. Ben Matulino 9. Issac Luke 10. Jacob Lillyman 11. Bodene Thompson 12. Ryan Hoffman 13. Bunty Afoa 14. Nathaniel Roache 15. Sam Lisone 8. James Gavet 18. Charlie Gubb
1. Jason Nightingale 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Taane Milne 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Kalifa Faifai Loa 6. Kurt Mann 7. Josh McCrone 8. Russell Packer 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Joel Thompson 13. Jack de Belin 14. Tariq Sims 15. Leeson Ah Mau 16. Hame Sele 17. Jai Field