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NZ Warriors 2023 Season Review: Webster Era kicks off with promise. Is this the start of Something Special?

Tags: warriors

With the NRL Season officially over and the Kiwi's matches just around the corner, I decided it was the perfect time to comb through the Warriors year and conduct my season review.

My optimism wasn't great coming into the season, and my expectations were well and truly exceeded. In a magical season that caught the country's attention, the Warriors finished the regular season in fourth spot before ending their Season in a preliminary final, which was a finish not many would have predicted.

I didn't write a season review last year due to it being such a disappointing season, so for those who haven't read one of my season reviews before I break it down into what happened this Season, my positives and negatives of 2023, I then highlight my top three warriors and my three that need to improve, before wrapping it all up while casting a brief glimpse in what's next for me and the Warriors.
So, let's stop the rambling and just get into the review.

What Went Down in 2023

The Warriors ended 2023 in fourth place, bowing out of the competition in the preliminary finals.
In my season preview, I had predicted a tenth-place finish, so another incorrect prediction by me but one that I was happy to get wrong.
It was a great start to this new era for the club, and with some finals experience and another preseason under their belt, the Warriors will put themselves in a prime position as a premiership threat.

After the past few years affected by Covid restrictions, the Warriors finally returned to a regular preseason, with no split camps or cancelled trials.
They stayed in New Zealand for both trials, winning the first at Mount Smart Stadium in a members-only event, defeating the Wests Tigers 48-12 before going down to the Storm at Apollo Projects Stadium (formally OrangeTheory Stadium) 24-6.

The Warriors started their Season with a 20-12 win in Wellington over the Knights before losing by the same scoreline a week later against the Roosters. The Warriors then won three in a row against the Cowboys, Bulldogs and Sharks in rounds 3 to 5.
That winning streak ended in round 6 with a loss to the Knights, but they bounced back in round 7 with a win over the Cowboys.
Then the much talked about 3 games in nine days happened, with the Warriors longest losing streak of 2023 coming at the hands of the Storm, Roosters and Panthers.
A win over the Bulldogs and a loss to the Broncos on either side of their first bye saw the Warriors in a decent spot on the ladder, which only improved after wins over the Dolphins, Raiders and Dragons and another bye, seeing the Warriors sit in 5th spot only 2 points behind the 1st place Panthers.
The team's confidence took a hit in their Round 18 heavy defeat to the Rabbitohs, but instead of derailing the campaign, the Warriors took it in their stride and went on a 7-game winning streak over the Eels, Sharks, Raiders, Titans, Tigers, Sea Eagles and Dragons.
With a top-four spot locked in, the Warriors elected to rest several key players and ended their winning streak in the final round in a 34-10 loss to the Dolphins.

This saw the Warriors return to the finals for the first time since 2018, and in the first week, they faced their 2018 finals opponents, the Penrith Panthers. They went down in a relatively one-sided affair 32-6, which set up a home final against the Knights; in front of a fantastic crowd, the Warriors put on a show winning 40-10, booking their tickets to the preliminary finals against the Broncos.
This was where the Warriors season ended, going down 42-12 against the impressive Brisbane outfit.

This saw the Warriors end their campaign with a 17-win, 10-loss record, and while it didn't end the way they would have wanted, it was definitely a massive improvement from their 2022 6-win, 18-loss record.
There were still plenty of what-if moments throughout the season, but if this is the platform on which the club is to build its future, then I am very optimistic about what the future brings.


My Positives for 2023


It was a surprising year in so many positive ways, and there was so much that brought a smile to my face, but I have reduced it to my top four positives for 2023.

Andrew Webster

I was hesitant when the club announced Webster as the Head Coach, and while I had a little optimism, I was concerned about a rookie coach coming into the mess that was the 2022 Warriors. That all changed after hearing him speak on This Warriors Life, Roo and Hammer and other media outlets. He showed that he was a great speaker and was open and honest about what he believed this team could do. It was refreshing to hear after a series of coaches that struggled to string words together.
He was able to come in and take a team that was mostly filled with talent selected by the past regime and get them to perform; when you listen to the players, the biggest thing they praise Webster with is his ability to instil confidence and belief into the squad. 
Players who were regressing under Nathan Brown found a new lease on life, and that fills me with hope about the development of the younger talent and what he could do with the returning Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Chanel Harris-Tavita.
Webster is still a young coach with plenty to learn, but he seems modest enough to know he has room for growth, which is a promising sign.
He has stated that he wishes to be in charge of the Warriors for a long time, and the possibilities of what he can achieve in the next 2-3 years are exciting.

The Revival of SJ

Shaun Johnson was one of the biggest talking points coming into 2023; many people called for Johnson to hang up his boots and the Warriors to move on. I was on the other side; I wanted to see if he could bounce back with a decent halves partner in Te Maire Martin. However, I did not expect to see Johnson turn back the clock and deliver perhaps his best Season ever.
Being back home with his family has played a massive part in SJ's improvement; a happy SJ is a dangerous SJ, and behind a forward pack that won the middle more often than not, it allowed him the time and space to get that Warriors backs into action, a key indicator of that was how dangerous the Warriors right edge attack was. 
He signed on to play again in 2024, and it was a well-deserved extension. 
It was also good to see how mature he has become, as he was playing in a way that could have gotten him big bucks at another club, but he instead took a pay cut as he wants to end his career where it started, and he has the belief that this club is on the right track to do something special.
Will 2024 be his final year? It's hard to say; if he performs like he did this year and feels like he still has more to give, then I wouldn't be surprised if he goes around again, but time will tell, and I will not write him off.

Improved defence and 80 Minute Efforts

One of my biggest gripes in 2022 was the Warrior's defence; it was their worst year in defensive stats ever and was the aspect of their performance that needed the most work, and man, did they deliver, conceding only 448 points during the Season, the 4th least in the NRL this year. There were still moments when they let themselves down with some poor reads, but it was no longer the default; the team defended like a unit, communicated better and had more confidence in the players on either side of them. 
Defence wins championships. I know it is a well-worn cliche, but it doesn't make it any less accurate. This defensive structure is a great starting point, and after a season of getting to know each other and the addition of RTS, I expect to see it go up another level in 2024, which makes the hopes of a first premiership more of a reality.

The Warriors Media and Gameday Teams

While the team delivered on the pitch, the Warriors team off it were also top-class. 
With its new podcast and weekly videos, the Media team gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the club and allowed us to learn more about the men wearing the jerseys on the field. 
I may be biased, but I feel like the Warriors' Social Media was head and shoulders above the rest of the NRL, and this just helps get more eyes on the side and, in turn, more people in seats on game day and I can't wait to see what they have in store for us over the offseason and then 2024.

Then there was the gameday team, making each home game feel special; the new entrance with the song Ru Ana Te Whenua from Alien Weaponry and fog that gave me goosebumps every single time. Getting the crowd to sing the team song after a win, it just made every home match a massive event. They have set themselves a high bar, and it will be interesting to see what else they have up their sleeves; I still have my fingers crossed that 2024 sees the return of the member's tent.

My Negatives for 2023


There were still a few issues in 2023, which leads to my three most significant negatives from the Season.

Errors

My biggest gripe this Season was the Warriors' errors; it felt like it was a negative in almost every review I wrote.
They made 282 errors this Season, the fifth worst in the competition. Many were simply from the Warriors trying to play too fast, pushing for quick play the balls, or forcing passes that weren't on, just general coach killers. The positive, however, is that it can be addressed and fixed easily enough; the team has had a year together, learning how each other clicks, and if they can just take a breath and stick to the game plan, then that error rate will reduce.

A Big Bopper Short

The Warriors still need another Front Rower.
It was a concern for me coming into this season, and it remains an issue for me now as we look towards 2024. Addin Fonua-Blake is a beast, but the Warriors' prop stocks fall off a cliff after him, and if he were to spend some time on the sidelines, then they could really struggle. Now, while there are guys like Zyon Maiu'u and Tom Ale that I have a lot of faith in, they still need time to develop before being regular first graders. There aren't a lot of top-tier front rowers on the market right now, which is an issue, but perhaps the Warriors can work their magic and get one that another team is willing to let go early; there are rumours that Newcastle are willing to let Daniel Saifiti, who would be my target.
If no player becomes available, then I think Tohu Harris needs to move up front, but with his injury concerns, that may not be wise; however, they have to do something.

Winless against Top 4 Teams

Just a small one, but the Warriors did not secure a win against any of the other top four sides, Losing 30-22 against the Storm, 18-6 and 32-6 against the Panthers and 26-22 and 42-12 against the Broncos.
A positive out of those is that the regular season matches were close against all three sides, especially when the games against the Storm and Panthers were in that tricky 3 matches in 11 days. The finals matches were more one-sided, with the Warriors struggling a bit with the faster pace of finals football and not being able to compete up front.
However, at least it wasnt like that past few seasons where the Warriors conceded cricket scores against the Storm and Panthers, so it is definitely a step in the right direction, and I think they are very close to ending their ANZAC day losing streak.

My Top Three Warriors for the Season

In my reviews this Season, I have selected my Warrior of the match, but behind the scenes, I was giving my old version of the Dally M 3,2,1 points to keep track of the players that shone in my personal view. 18 Players earned points throughout the season, but I will only cover the top three here.

Shaun Johnson - 36 points

I already talked a lot about SJ, but he won my Player of the Round by a landslide and rightly so.
His kicking game was on point, leading the NRL in Kicks (418), Attacking Kicks (206), and Kick Metres (13,091m). Had the most try assists (29) and Linebreak Involvements (20), but the thing that impressed me the most this season was Johnson's defence, ending the year with a 90.8% tackle efficiency. He has been prone to falling off tackles in the past, but this year, he didn't take a backward step and was a reliable defender despite being targeted every week.
It was a stellar season for the veteran half, and with 2024 most likely set to be his last ever, I hope he finds another level and gets that Dally M that he cruelly missed out on this Season.

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad - 23 Points

Charnze was the best story out of the Warriors camp this Season for me, going from reserve grade at the Raiders to a linchpin in the Warriors backline. 
In his first year back with the Warriors, he played in 23 matches, scoring 7 tries and ending the year with 8 try assists. He also averaged 188 running metres a game and had an 85.9% tackle efficiency. 
He is an entirely different beast to Reece Walsh, who is full of X-Factor and highlight reel plays, but what CNK lacks in X-Factor, he makes up for in effort; he just always got stuck in, getting involved in the hard carries coming out of the Warriors end, sometimes running the ball more than once in a set and developed a great combination with Shaun Johnson which made that right edge attack almost unstoppable. That battler mentality is precisely what the Warriors need, and I wouldn't swap him for anyone.

Tohu Harris - 22 Points

Tohu Harris has been my Player of the Year for the past four seasons, and while his streak is now over, it was another excellent season for the skipper. Despite being held together by strapping tape all Season, he played in 23 matches, scoring 3 tries, making 910 tackles with a tackle efficiency of 93.6% and averaging 139 running metres a game.
With so many players performing well above expectations, I overlooked Harris a lot this season, not because he wasnt playing well but because I am used to him consistently delivering. However, the Warrior's inspirational leader went above and beyond again and was crucial in the Warriors' attack. His short ball play created many scoring opportunities in the middle of the field. 
He played crazy minutes this Season, and I think the Warriors need to work on reducing his minutes in a way to keep him healthy without affecting his impact on the match result; as I mentioned earlier, I think he needs to move into the front row if the Warriors cannot recruit another big prop. 
2024 will likely be his last, so I hope the Warriors can put in a mighty effort to send him off in the right way, as it is what he deserves.

My Three Warriors Who Need to Improve

On the other hand, I only picked one player to improve each week, like the Warriors of the Year section; I have selected the three players that appeared the most in my Warriors to improve segment each week. On a side note, however, the third-place selection was None Selected (picked 4 times this season), where I had no Warrior to improve. 


Adam Pompey - 5 Selections 

Adam Pompey, I have mentioned many times this Season as being an enigma; on a good day, he is a dangerous attacking weapon, as shown by his 5 tries and 11 try assists this Season. However, when he is having a bad day, it stands out, demonstrated by his error rate; he made 31 errors this Season, which was the most by a Warrior and the 12th highest in the NRL.
I haven't been his biggest fan, so his selections may be biased, but he was winning me over this season as, besides being picked in Finals Week 1, I hadn't selected him as my Warrior to improve since Round 20. He is rocks and diamonds, for sure, but as the Season progressed, his positives outweighed his negatives.
He appears to be highly regarded by the coaching staff, leading to him getting a new deal. 
However, in 2024, I personally would be going with a RTS and Rocco Berry centre pairing, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Pompey out there again, and as long as he can bring those errors down and narrow the gap between his good and bad games, then he could make that centre spot his own.

Bunty Afoa - 4 Selections

Bunty's season was confusing for me; I wasn't sure what his role in the squad was at first, which resulted in him receiving all his selections in the first 15 rounds. 
He played 21 games this season, scoring 1 try and ended his Season with a 97.7% tackle efficiency.
The reason I selected him 4 times, however, was his running metres; he averaged only 59 running metres and 5 hit-ups a game. I always want to see those front rowers hit the triple digits; that is my pass mark, but Afoa only hit that 3 times this year.
There has been no confirmation from Andrew Webster, but it looked like Afoa's role was to be a defensive-focused forward, tightening up the middle of the park and taking the sting out of the opposition middles. 
That is fine in theory, but with the Warriors needing another metre-eating middle, it felt like Afoa was not really making a mark, and I'm not sure if we will see much of him in 2024. He is a solid defender, but he needs to offer more with so many players fighting for that game-day 17.

Marata Niukore - 2 Selections

Lastly was Marata Niukore, who was only selected two times, and I thought he had a decent first year with the club. He scored 3 tries, had 2 try assists and 6 linebreaks. He also averaged 94 running metres and had a tackle efficiency of 92.9%.
The reason I picked him in those two matches was his errors and discipline. The officials are also watching him and are always ready to penalise him, and any charges he gets are almost certain to result in bans, so in 2024, he just needs to be extra squeaky clean. Other than those aspects of his game, he was great, so fix them, and I expect a big year in 2024.

2023 In Summary

So another season is in the books, and while the Warriors didn't go all the way, they made it to the preliminary final, which makes the Season a pass in my books, especially with how I thought my 10th-place prediction would be a great start for Webster's head coaching career.

The team played with a simple game plan, and with the squad starting the season super fit, it gave them the best chance of competing, which is exactly what we saw. 
They finally showed the ability to play for 80 minutes, which played a pivotal role in them nailing some vital wins this Season. 
The young players got some valuable experience and showed growth, and with the Warriors returning to the NSW Cup, it gave the club a place to keep these youngsters playing and learning, which should bear fruit for the first-grade squad in the future.
Add to that several key figures in the squad hitting career-best form at the right time, and it was simply a magical year to be a Warriors fan, and it has filled me with optimism about what the future will bring.
The team has stated several times that they have a lot to work on, which is great to hear as they will go into 2024 with expectations, and they need to go up a level if they don't want to follow in the Cowboy's footsteps and plummet down the ladder.

Signings for 2024 so far are big ones, the returns of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Chanel Harris-Tavita; RTS has confirmed that he is returning to play as a centre, which I think is an excellent idea due to the centres being the weak link in the Warrior's backline. It will be great to see him back, and I'm excited about what his inclusion in the starting lineup will do to this team.
CHT returning is great, too; however, we have yet to hear how Webster wants to use him. 
He has played in several positions in his career, and when he was last with the club, I floated the idea of him moving into a ball-playing lock role; now, while that may not happen, I could see him taking over the role Bayley Sironen had in the squad. Or they may keep him as a half option as they start to think ahead to SJ's pending retirement. 
We will just have to wait and see, but both are exciting additions to an already impressive squad; I just still have my fingers crossed for another prop signing.

This season was fantastic; the Warriors exceeded my expectations and, after a painful few years, made me enjoy writing about them again. We also finally had them home, and I got to go to every regular season match played in New Zealand, making the journeys to Wellington, Napier and Hamilton, plus getting to sit in sellout home matches at Mt Smart again; just made this Season so much sweeter.

2023 was also a pretty good year for me; we started Season Four of The Stand-Off on New Zealand Sport Radio with our 100th episode; I also got to join Roo & Hammer, Warrior NRL Fanatics, Hold the Ball and Wahs Up on their channels to talk about the Warriors. 
I love talking about the Warriors, and I just need to get myself on This Warriors Life, and then I've completed my bingo card.
It's great to see so many people creating content about the Warriors; as a team that sometimes gets forgotten in the media, it's incredible seeing the fans fill in the gaps, and I'm excited about what everyone will do in 2024.
I don't know what 2024 will bring for me. I will still be writing my reviews and hosting The Stand-Off, but I am considering getting into videos where I can chat more in-depth about the Warriors and invite people to chat footy. Will think about it more in the offseason, but let me know if videos on Warriors news, rumours and interviews are something you guys would like to see from me.

While the writing will have a little break, my show, The Stand-Off, will still have a few more episodes before Season Four ends, so come check it out at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays; it streams on my Facebook page and is also on the New Zealand Sport Radio YouTube Channel as well.

New Zealand Sport Radio

Thank you again for reading my reviews this year; it means so much to me, and I look forward to chatting with you all again soon.

That was my take on a surprisingly good 2023 season, and as usual, I will leave you with some questions.

What are your thoughts on the 2023 season?
Who was your player of the year?
Which player do you think needs to improve the most?
What realistic changes would you make for next Season?
How do you see the 2024 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 2023 Season Review: Webster Era kicks off with promise. Is this the start of Something Special?

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