A good night for the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys in Townsville, outlasting the Vodafone Warriors...
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Here we go again. Another pre-season filled with hype around a supremely talented playing roster has Warriors fans dreaming of a breakthrough Premiership.
On the back of star signings Roger Tuivasa-Scheck and Issac Luke for the 2016 season, many pundits saw the Warriors going deep into the Premiership race. Instead it turned into a mirror image of campaigns gone by. A now predictable charge up the ladder through the Origin period saw them move from 13th to 7th position and well and truly placed for a strong run home.
It wasn't to be. The rugby league world was again left scratching their heads after they dropped six of their last eight games including four straight to finish the year when everything was on the line. Granted, they were missing Tuivasa-Scheck who suffered a season ending knee injury in Round 8, whilst Luke never quite regained top fitness after arriving across the ditch in less than ideal physical condition, but the mentality of the playing group had to be questioned moving forward.
Enter a change in coach for season 2017 and none other than New Zealand's former national head honcho Stephen Kearney was appointed to replace Andrew McFadden - who himself has unusually stayed at the club to work on Kearney's coaching staff. Seen as a mentally strong character and much respected in Rugby League circles as being a good manager of men, Kearney is tasked with getting his playing group to push through the mental scars of broken campaigns gone by, and instill in them a hunger and will to succeed that coupled with their untapped natural ability, would make them a force to be reckoned with.
The other big IN for Kearney's men looms as former Manly and Parramatta half Kieran Foran. After walking away from a lucrative deal with the Eels midway through last season to deal with mental health problems, Foran will be looking to resurrect his promising career. He will have to wait a couple of weeks into the season to pull on a Warriors jersey for the first time though, after the NRL officially rubber stamped his contract last week for a round 3 return, pending psychological clearance.
Along with a new coach, the Warriors will also have a new captain to start the year with the 23 year old Tuivasa-Scheck being handed the reigns. With only seven games in the Warriors jersey early last year, the move is seen as somewhat of a gamble from coach Kearney, but if 'RTS' can recapture his 2015 form at the Roosters - where he smashed the season running metres record - it could prove a masterstroke. With the young dynamo leading from the front and getting the Warriors' sets off to a strong start, it may just spark his forwards to get on the back of him and dominate the territorial battle up front.
An all New Zealand spine. With Foran joining the ranks, the Warriors will potentially have the best spine in the competition. If Luke starts the season in better shape and gets his forwards on a roll, Foran will supply the calming influence and toughness to take pressure off the gifted Shaun Johnson to weave his magic and simply play what he sees in front of him.
Throw in the new skipper Tuivasa-Scheck making plenty of yards early in sets, not to mention his fancy footwork that can leave defenders clutching at straws from anywhere on the park, and you have an attacking force that even the best defensive outfits in the League will struggle to contain.
Like in past years, they should at the very least be in a position to make a charge for the Finals coming out of the Origin period. With games against the Panthers, Cowboys and Sharks who are all tipped for strong seasons in the ensuing three weeks, it will soon become clear whether they have the mental strength to buck the trend of another late season slide.
Perhaps of more concern though, is the tactics new Coach Kearney employs in his halves. In his time as coach at the Eels, one of his biggest mistakes was sending an instinctive attacking halfback Chris Sandow out to implement a Melbourne Storm like structured style of football. Fans can only hope he's learned his lesson because if he sends his livewire halfback Shaun Johnson out with similar instructions it will slice his team's attacking spark clean in half.
Providing he's back to full mental fitness, expect Kieran Foran to again stamp himself as one of the most influential players in the game. The fact that Manly struggled without him and Parramatta transformed into a top four team in the early rounds of last year (before the season from hell unravelled) was no coincidence. The former Kiwi pivot has all the attributes of the champion halves to have played the game. His ability to direct his team around the park will take loads of pressure off Johnson, but he also has the footballing nous to know when to deviate from the plan and play what he sees in front of him. His willingness and toughness to take his ball-playing skills right to the defensive line is rare in today's game. Potentially he's the final piece to the Warrior's Premiership puzzle.
An injury to back-rower Bodene Thompson in July last year paved the way for exciting young forward Bunty Afoa to debut. He went on to play four games in Thompson's absence including a starring role against Manly in Perth in which he showed great hole running ability picking up two tries running off Johnson out wide. The 20 year old Warrior played most of his junior football through the middle in the front-row, but his ability to adapt as an edge back-rower last year makes him a versatile asset off the bench when he gets his chance again. With a forward pack containing the likes of Lillyman, Thompson, Hoffman and Mannering that will toil away all day, a spark of raw aggression that the running style of Afoa provides could do wonders for their pack and ensure young Bunty has a breakout campaign.
Gains | Kieran Foran (Eels)
1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c)
2. David Fusitu'a
3. Tuimoala Lolohea
4. Solomone Kata
5. Manu Vatuvei
6. Kieran Foran
7. Shaun Johnson
8. Jacob Lillyman
9. Isaac Luke
10. Ben Matulino
11. Bodene Thompson
12. Ryan Hoffman
13. Simon Mannering
Click the image below for a full-size download of the Warriors' 2017 schedule.