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NZ Warriors 2020 Season Review: Road Warriors grit shines in unprecedented season, as hope builds for 2020

Tags: warriors

With the 2020 NRL season now completed, I decided it was the perfect time to comb through the Warriors year and conduct my season review.
2020 has been a season like no other, with COVID changing the landscape there were times when it looked like the season was not going to continue. 
After a less than stellar start, the Warriors found themselves in a situation where they had to base themselves in Australia for the entire season.

The odds were stacked against the New Zealand side. Still, as the season progressed, the Warriors found a tough edge and a top-eight finish started to look like a possibility, but unfortunately it wasn't to be as they finished the year in 10th position.
2020 was filled to the brim with talking, so let's just get into my review.

My Take on 2020

The Warriors ended the 2019 season in 13th place and in my 2020 season preview I was not overly confident that the Warriors would improve, so I predicted another 13th place finish.
I was wrong with that prediction with the Warriors finishing 10th, and despite still missing out on the playoffs I think they have shown enough to give me hope that 2021 will be happier times for the Warriors and other fans alike.

I think the 2020 season could easily be broken into two separate sections, the Kearney era and the post-Kearney era. 
Up until his final game as coach in round 6, the Warriors only manages two victories and four heavy defeats. They simply lacked attack and struggled with their defensive structure, the Warriors needed to do something and releasing Kearney from his contract was the decision they made.
I had given my thoughts on the decision back when it happened but to reiterate I was not a fan of how the decision was made but believe it was a decision that should have been made a while ago.

This lead to Todd Payten's promotion to head coach, to take over this side at that point in time with all the struggles this season had brought was not ideal, however instead of the Warriors falling apart like many had predicted, the Warriors started to grow a tough exterior and took several of the best sides in the competition to the limit. Besides two heavy defeats to the Storm and the Sharks, the Warriors looked a better outfit and were close to cracking the top eight, including my match of the year, a resounding 36-6 win over the Newcastle Knights in round 16.
This saw Todd Payten's run as coach ended with six wins and eight losses, still not a great record, but again it was more about the effort shown in those performances.

Overall the 2020 season was still disappointing, but in comparison to 2019 it was a welcomed step in the right direction, the Warriors just need to ensure that they take everything the platform they have set this season and build on it in 2021.

My Positives for 2020
Copyright Photo: Warriors.kiwi

There were a few things that brought a smile to my face this season, but I have selected my top four positives for 2020.

Grit

This season was probably the toughest the Warriors have ever endured. Having to spend the entire season camped in Australia with a massive injury tally and the firing of the Head Coach, all of these challenges saw many pundits on both sides of the Tasman declare the Warriors destined for the Wooden Spoon.
But the longer the season went, the tighter this group became, the turning point for the side was when some of their key players decided to come home, it looked as if that was going to be the death blow to the 2020 season, but instead it installed grit in the remaining squad. No matter the challenge, the players were not going to roll over and wait for the season to end.
This side took teams like the Panthers and Roosters to the limit and showed that even when they were down by 13+, they would not give up and would keep battling until the 80th minute.
This has been the Warriors biggest downfall in the past, it is well known that other sides saw the Warriors as a 60-minute team and that as long as they kept close to the Warriors for the first hour, they would overtake them in the final stretch so seeing the Warriors improve that has made me more confident in the direction this club is heading.

This season was almost like an extra-long tour, and the team blossomed because of it, the many young players that the Warriors had to rely on got to learn so much from the experienced campaigners in the camp, and I think the Warriors will benefit from this experience for years to come.
2020 could be the year that makes this club what all the fans want it to be, a credible playoff team.
They just have to make sure that they don't take a step backwards when the 2021 season commences.

The Emergence of Rookies/ Loan Players

With the massive injury toll seeing the Warriors lose a majority of their front-rowers and the loss of Ken Maumalo and David Fusitu'a when they returned to New Zealand, it meant the Warriors were forced to lean on plenty of young players that would most likely have not got a lot of game time in a normal season. Pretty much all of the youngsters rose to this challenge.
Players like Eliesa Katoa, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown. Jack Murchie and Adam Pompey all became legitimate first graders in my eyes and have developed a lot quicker than they would have if they were sitting on the bench with limited chances. With Katoa being my standout, he has superstar written all over him and could become the Warriors rampaging the second-rower by the time I write my 2021 season review.
These youngsters were given a shot and took it with both hands, and I think many of them will be pushing for starting positions when next season comes around.

Before I move on I have to mention the loan players that the Warriors were gifted this season, It must be hard as a player to be sent to another club, but Poasa Faamausili, Jack Hetherington, Daniel Alvaro and George Jennings all arrived at the Warriors in the right frame of mind and gave it there all and kept the Warriors in a position to compete.
My standout loan players had to be Hetherington and Jennings. 
Hetherington brought an aggressive streak to the Warriors and became an enforcer of sorts, his discipline still needs plenty of improvement. I was hoping that the Warriors would be able to lure him to the club fulltime, but it wasn't to be with the Bulldogs snatching him up, a great signing for them and I wish him well.
Jennings slotted onto the wing for the Warriors like he had been with them all along, he ran hard and gave the Warriors some much-needed pace on the edge. He hadn't had the best luck in trying to cement a spot on the wing for the Eels, but in his short stint at the Warriors he showed everyone what he can offer, and it is no surprise that there are now rumours of the Storm looking to pick him up now that they are on the lookout for wingers.

Todd Payten

When Payten was handed the interim coaching role in round 7, he had the odds stacked against him. Taking over a team midseason is never ideal, but it didn't take him long to show his potential as a full-time head coach.
I was unsure of how he would go when he got the gig, but he won me over with his fresh and frank style. Kearney always appeared to struggle in post-match conferences, and you normally came away from the interviews with more questions than answers, but with Payten you knew exactly what he thought, and the players seemed to respond to this style.
He made good decisions on his gameday 17 and always picked a balanced bench, which was always my biggest gripe in the Kearney era.
As the team was heading toward the business end of the season, I was completely sold of Payten becoming the Warriors full-time coach and was happy when the Warriors decided to offer him the job and then was shocked when Payten turned it down. He cited family reasons which you cannot blame him for, but I'm sure he also told that they Cowboys job was his for the taking.
A massive thank you needs to go to Payten for what he has done for the club this season and I wish him well in his new journey with North Queensland, I truly hope he turns that side around just not when they face the Warriors.

Attack starting to build

In the 2020 preseason, the Warriors announced that they were changing their attacking style, taking off the shackles to unleash the Warriors strike weapons. This, unfortunately, did not happen with the Warriors playing the same lacklustre style they did in 2019. However, when Payten took over, you saw the Warriors take a few more chances on attack. Then when Blake Green left the club after round 12, the Warriors attack went up a gear.
I have said often that Green was an anchor to the Warriors attack, making poor decisions on the fifth tackle and with him out of the picture the Warriors finally got to try out the halves combination of Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tavita.
CHT is still very young and has a lot to learn, but he is a star, and I believe he will be a mainstay for the club for years to come, and if the Warriors allow his partnership with Nikorima to continue I think they will develop into a formidable duo.
The Warriors forward pack were instrumental in getting the attack back on track with the young props consistently bending the defensive line and the rest of the pack getting the backline into the action with their offloading ability.
I say it every year, but the Warriors are lethal when they can utilise second phase football, that "Warriors Football" is exciting to watch and hard to defend against and hopefully we will see more of the same next season.

My Negatives for 2020
Copyright Photo: Getty Images

Unfortunately, there were issues with this season also, so I have narrowed them down to my four most significant negatives.

Missed Tackles

It should come as no surprise since I mentioned it every week but my biggest negative from the 2020 season was missed tackles. The Warriors missed 610 tackles this season making them the fifth-worst team in this department.
The averaged 30 missed tackles a match, and this is something that needs to be fixed immediately, how they fix it though, well I'm not entirely sure.
I would say it's an attitude issue, but with how good the Warriors are with their scrambling defence I don't think that is the issue, so it's either fitness or a poor defensive game plan. With all the changes to the coaching staff and the playing squad itself for next season, there is no better time to go back to the drawing board and figure out a new defensive style that suits the side and brings that missed tackle stat down.

Errors

Another regular complaint from me this season was the Warriors error rate. They made 202 errors this season which was actually the second least amount which is good; however, my issue was that the Warriors unforced errors consistently happened early in their sets or when they were deep in the oppositions RedZone or when they were trying to get out of their own RedZone. These mistakes are called coach killers for a reason, and they need to just reign them in a little.
It's a catch22 with this side though as they are more likely to make errors when they are throwing the ball around, so it is all about finding that balance without hindering their attack.

Injuries

Injuries were a major concern with the Warriors losing so many players before the first round. Injuries were a common issue for all sides this season and are hard to prevent, so it's hard to offer a solution to improve the injured tally in the future.
With so many players getting injured before the season started though means that perhaps they need to make some adjustments to their preseason training to reduce the chances of injury.
It's a hard thing to try and fix, but with the Warriors most likely spending the 2021 season in Australia once again they are going to need to ensure they have as many hands-on-deck as possible.

Slow Starts

My last negative is the Warriors horrible trend of starting matches slowly. Quite often the Warriors found themselves two or three tries behind before they kicked into gear.
They were able to get themselves back into the contest most of the time, but they did themselves no favours, but starting matches cold.
Like all the negatives I have mentioned though this is something that can be fixed in both the offseason and preseason.
Perhaps a change to how they warm up and prepare before kickoff is what is required so let's add it to the list for the new coaching staff to work on in the upcoming months.

My Top Three Warriors for the season

Quite a few players stood up this season with several players being selected as my Warrior of the match throughout the season,, but I have selected the three that appeared the most as my Warriors of the season.

Tohu Harris
Copyright Photo: Getty Images

Tohu Harris was head and shoulders above the rest of the Warriors in 2020, I gave him my Warrior of the match on six occasions this season, the next best only managed three.
Harris has come out in the past and acknowledge that his body hasn't been 100% for some time and with the extended time, off in 2019 in was coming into this season without any niggles and man did it show with Harris being able to play in all 20 matches for the Warriors in what has been his best year since joining the side.
He was the leader of the forward pack and rolled up his sleeves and did more than his fair share of work, making a team-high 845 tackles (the next best in the Warriors only made 558). Not being content with being a defensive powerhouse, Harris was also 2nd in the club for running metres totalling 3465 metres.
2020 was a great year for Harris, and hopefully, 2021 will be even better.
Speaking of 2021, it is also the final year of his contract, and with rival clubs allowed to speak with him from the first of November, the Warriors need to get an offer on the table for him ASAP, or they will lose him, and I don't think the Warriors can afford that.


RTS

It should come as no surprises that the 2020 Dally M Captain of the year has made my top three Warriors once again. In the 18 games he played this year, he ran for 3973 meters (5th in the NRL), scored 5 tries, had 84 tackle breaks and made 8 line breaks. He offers so much on attack already, but if he can get himself involved in a playmaking capacity, it will add an extra feather in his cap and make the Warriors attack a lot stronger.
In my 2019 season review, I voiced my concerns that the Warriors were relying on their skipper too much and that if the club didn’t find players that were willing to share the load, that they could wind up losing him. This year you saw the rest of the squad really give their all for the skipper, which is a testament to how well respected he is.
The sacrifices he made for this club this year have been widely reported, and he has admitted that he struggled every day with wanting to come home, but I think he knew that if he left the Warriors most likely would have imploded. So thank you RTS for everything you have done, and I hope you enjoy some much deserved time with your young family.

Peta Hiku

Peta Hiku had a great 2020 and earnt himself a one-year extension. I have been critical of Hiku’s defensive issues in the past, but you cannot argue that what he offers on attack more than makes up for it.
After assisting his winger in being the Warriors leading try-scorer two years straight, it was Hiku’s time to shine with him leading the Warriors with 8 tries. He also ran for 2204 running metres, made 5 line breaks, 28 tackle breaks, and he also kept his reputation as an unselfish centre by ending the season with 9 try assists, the second-highest amount by a Warrior this season.
Yes, his defence is still a concern, but if the Warriors get a solid defending second-rower to sit out on his edge with him, then that will solve that problem and allow him to do what he does best. Fingers crossed his form continues into 2021, and we see him earn another contract extension.


My Three Warriors who need to improve

On the other hand, the players that appeared in my Warriors to improve section throughout the season were mainly the same one's week in and week out. Most of them, however, are no longer with the club (Blake Green, Gerard Beale and Isaiah Papali'i) so I have excluded them from this section and will select my three 2021 contracted players that need to improve the most in 2021.

Kodi Nikorima
Copyright Photo: Getty Images

It was hard to put Kodi Nikorima in this section as I thought he had a reasonably decent season. He lead the side with 19 try assists and provided several highlight-reel performances that brought a smile to my face. The reason I have him in this section, however, is solely because he would at times have games where he would disappear. Every time the Warriors had a great performance you can guarantee Nikorima was running the ball, if he can consistently attack the line, then the Warriors are one step closer to getting the win. When he just sits out the back and just throws the ball to whoever is closest to him them the Warriors are immediately on the backfoot.
Maybe its a confidence thing but the Warriors 2021 forward pack looks to be full of potential, so if they are doing all the hard work up front, then Nikorima should have plenty of space to utilise his running game.

Wayde Egan

Wayde Egan had a passable first year with the Warriors, patchy at times but towards the end of the season, he started to show promise.
In 2021 he needs to eliminate the no-look passes out of the ruck, they are too slow, and most of the time they tend to drift forward. The Warriors need quick, crisp passing from their dummy half and he started to show that he had the goods in that department.
He also needs to work on his snipe game, many of the top sides in 2020 had mobile hookers that darted out of the ruck when the markers were a tad slow and got there team a six again call.
One perk of the Warriors new coach Nathan Brown is that as a former hooker he is good at working with his team's hookers so we should expect to see Egan and Karl Lawton reach a new level.

David Fusitu'a

My last player to improve is David Fusitu'a.
Fusitu'a did not have a lot of game time this season due to coming home early, in his absence the Warriors has several players step up and make that wing spot their own. I know Kearney moved Fusitu'a into the centres, but with Hiku and new signing Euan Aitken there I don't see him getting a shot there again.
With Adam Pompey still with the club and having a decent season, he will be pushing for a position in the gameday 17, and while Fusitu'a should slot straight back into the side, if he doesn't up his game, he may find himself on the outer.
He is a great player with talent in finding the try-line, but after leading the NRL in tries scored in 2018, he has been in a bit of a dry patch. He needs to hit the ground running in 2021 and get himself back on the scoreboard, or he may find himself looking for another club.

In Summary

If you take a black and white look at the 2020 season, you would say it was a fail due to the Warriors missing the playoffs once again.
However, at the end of this season, I felt confident that the Warriors are on the right track, now I'm not saying that I think the Warriors are going to go all the way in 2021, but playoffs are a reasonable expectation. They showed toughness and heart, and if that continues into the 2021 season, their opponents will have to take them seriously.
They have cleaned out a lot of talent and have got some good signings on the way, in particular the signing of Addin Fonua-Blake which has got me really excited.
The forward pack looks better than it has in years and the backline with the return of Ken Maumalo and David Fusitu'a looks as dangerous as ever. 
So we will see what happens, but I can admit that I am looking forward to writing about the 2021 season a hell of a lot more than I was as this season started.

2020 has been such a strange year, with no live games to go to, but writing about the season and starting my show The Stand-Off on New Zealand Sport Radio has helped me get through some tough times so I would like to thank all of you that continue to read my ramblings every week. I want to continue to write throughout the offseason, so watch this space.
I also want to reach out to the Warriors to see if I can get some people on the Facebook show or get some interviews to publish on here. Fingers crossed on that, but you guys will be the first to know.

While the writing will have a little break, my Facebook show will still have a few more episodes before season one ends so come check it out 8pm on Wednesdays.

New Zealand Sport Radio

Thank you all once again, and I look forward to talking to you soon.

So that was my take on 2020, and as usual, I will leave you with some questions.

What are your thoughts on the 2020 season?
Who was your player of the year?
Which player needs to improve the most?
What realistic changes would you make for next season?
How do you see the 2021 season going?



This post first appeared on Nz Warriors 2017 Season Preview : Above The Line - The Kearney Era Begins, please read the originial post: here

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NZ Warriors 2020 Season Review: Road Warriors grit shines in unprecedented season, as hope builds for 2020

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