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The Warriors were the feel-good story of the season - but can they turn that into a 2021 finals appearance.

After COVID-19 forced them to relocate to Australia prior to the May 28 re-start, what followed was a series of inspirational wins mixed with some unhappy outings.

With the NRL hoping the Warriors will be able to play their 2021 home matches back on their side of the Tasman, there is hope a finals appearance will follow.

Add a new coach and a handful of astute signings into that mix and an improvement from 10th into the top-eight is within reach.

In this week's For & Against, Martin Lenehan and Chris Kennedy weigh up the Warriors' chances.

All in: Inside the Warriors' 2020 season

For & Against

For - senior journalist Martin Lenehan

After enduring a season from hell in 2020 and displaying a level of resilience that has not always been their trademark, the Warriors will relish the stability the new season promises.

With a new coach in Nathan Brown and quality recruits Kane Evans, Euan Aitken, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Addin Fonua-Blake, the Warriors have the pieces in place to make a return to finals footy for the first time since 2018.

In the face of insurmountable odds in rugby league's most bizarre season, the Warriors still won eight games in 2020.

Analysing the Warriors' 2021 draw

With a return to home base in Auckland in 2021 and the stability all players crave, they will get into a rhythm early with games at Mt Smart Stadium against the Titans and Knights.

The Warriors have always been capable of piling on points and they’ll be lethal again with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, David Fusitu'a, Ken Maumalo, Kodi Nikorima, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Aitken but it’s in the forwards where we’ll see them go to a new level.

Fonua-Blake averaged 166 metres per game for Manly in 2020 and will lay the platform week in and week out while 110kg monster Evans brings a hard edge to the pack.

The former Eel has an offload in his game and a great ability to keep his legs pumping after initial contact.

Also, let's not forget the return to the NRL of Tonga representative Murdoch-Masila.

Backing up that trio will be the powerhouse Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, the 114kg, 194cm prop who debuted in 2020 and made a huge impression in 19 appearances.

Bayley Sironen and Tohu Harris offer plenty of punch on the edges and Jack Murchie will rip in when he gets his opportunity.

Warriors' top five tries of 2020

And speaking of opportunity, that’s exactly what Nathan Brown gets in his return to a head-coaching role after leaving the Knights at the end of 2019.

Brown has already laid down the law, warning his players not to come back "fat or lazy" when he addressed them via Zoom in September.

Following the lead of interim coach Todd Payten, who pulled no punches during his time at the helm in 2020, Brown won’t be as forgiving as some previous Warriors mentors.

The time has come to draw a line in the sand and Brown is the right man for the job.

It’s hard to fathom that after 25 years in the competition the pride of New Zealand still haven’t won a premiership but in 2021 they have the pieces in place on and off the field to mount a serious challenge.

Against - reporter Chris Kennedy

Let me say from the top, I'd love to see the Warriors in the finals next year.

I was blown away by their sacrifice this year, to the point I bought a club membership, which I will be renewing.

So I'd love to be wrong when I say this, but I just don't see them making it.

Warriors fans cheer on their heroes.
Warriors fans cheer on their heroes. ©Paul Barkley/NRL Photos

There are certainly some reasons for optimism – they get Bunty Afoa and Leeson Ah Mau back from injury and wingers David Fusitu'a and Ken Maumalo back after each had to leave the bubble in 2020.

Addin Fonua-Blake and Ben Murdoch-Masila bolster the pack, Euan Aitken rounds out the backline and Bayley Sironen is an edge forward on the up in a spot they needed another body.

But can they turn any of that into better results than they achieved in 2020?

Despite some positive recruiting, there are still questions over the key playmaking roles, in particular dummy-half.

It was only after Blake Green departed that Chanel Harris-Tavita and Kodi Nikorima were settled upon as the first-choice halves combination and if that is indeed the pairing going forward, there is still improvement required.

The loss of Todd Payten is also massive. Only those inside the team bubble will know exactly how much of a role he played in their impressively resilient performances following Steve Kearney's departure but he seemed like the ideal coach to take them forward.

Whether Nathan Brown can draw similar performances remains to be seen, and while there were some positives from his Knights tenure around rebuilding the roster, I don't see evidence that this Warriors team will immediately improve under his guidance.

One also wonders, despite all the difficulties of 2020, whether having a permanent base in NSW and not having to deal with international travel every second week may have actually benefitted their performances.

There is an argument they overperformed in 2020, and still finished with an 8-12 win-loss record, still needing a significant improvement to challenge for finals next year.

Despite some roster improvements it just looks a bridge too far for now. That said – prove me wrong, boys!


The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.

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The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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