25 rounds, 192 games, #Origin on a Sunday, and a September Grand Final.
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TEAM NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
COACH Daniel Anderson
CAPTAIN Monty Betham
BACKS The Warriors backline is brimming with talent, size, and speed. Only Stacey Jones is above 26 years of age, a frightening fact given time is on this unit?s side to get even better. Jones is the key to this attack and has matured into arguably the finest Kiwi halfback ever, just who plays outside him at five-eighth though remains up in the air after the emergence of two fine young players. Lance Hohaia and Thomas Leuluai have both represented in Tests, but will compete against each other for a spot in the run-on team. Out wide, the Warriors have an incredible array of attacking options. Clinton Toopi emerged as arguably the most dangerous centre in the NRL, Francis Meli is capable of even bigger things in 2004 if he sets his mind to it, Henry Fa?afili is a quality winger, Tony Martin looks set to take the other centre spot due to his goalkicking after returning from a stint in the UK, and Vinnie Anderson proved he is up to first grade standard. Then there is the dynamic Brent Webb who has found his home at fullback; he is now one of the most feared kick returners in the game. Experienced winger Justin Murphy, Vincent Mellars, Jerome Ropati and Marcus Perenara round out the depth chart.
FORWARDS Once the Warriors sorted out their front office, they finally began to take advantage of the talent that was on offer in New Zealand. Ali Lauiti?iti is the star, but the Warriors pack is talented throughout. Lautiti?iti?s skills complimented by Awen Guttenbeil?s hard work makes the second row among the biggest and best in the NRL. Sione Faumuina was explosive in the Finals and looks to have a back row position his to lose. Jerry Seu Seu and Richard Villasanti are a formidable front row combination but both lacked consistency last season and this will be Seu Seu?s final chance at a NRL premiership so expect a big year. Matt Jobson joins from the Knights looking for an opportunity and he will compete with crowd favourites Mark Tookey and Iafeta Palea?aesina for a spot in the prop rotation. Wairangi Koopu is the utility man coach Daniel Anderson relies on from the bench, but Danny Sullivan, Karl Te Mata, and Evarn Tuimivavae will enter the equation should injuries strike. The hooking role looked covered at the start of last season with PJ Marsh in scintillating form, but a career threatening neck injury has Captain Monty Betham packing down in the role, with ample backup from the exciting Tevita Latu and recent signing Paul Dezolt.
KEY PLAYER JONES ? Had injury not limited his effectiveness in the Finals, Stacey Jones was capable of leading the Warriors to a second consecutive Grand Final. The diminutive halfback has all the skills and poise to break games wide open. The strength of the New Zealand pack allows him plenty of room to weave his magic and his outside men are the beneficiaries. At 27, he is entering his prime and can deliver a premiership before he retires. ONE TO WATCH PALEA?AESINA ? The human Rhino needs to take his game past the novelty level in 2004. Palea?aesina is devastating running the ball but needs to offer the Warriors more he must prove he is capable of more minutes and a rounded player. With increased competition for a spot in the NRL squad, he must realise his potential consistently.
BIGGEST ADVANTAGE Crowd Support ? After the Warriors 2002 Grand Final appearance, crowds flocked to Ericsson Stadium last year. Averaging nearly 17,000 fans, the Warriors were firmly embraced by the Auckland public improving their 2002 crowd average by a tick under one thousand. But perhaps the biggest sign that rugby league is thriving in New Zealand came from the buzz that surrounded the Warriors amongst the fans in both New Zealand and Australia. For the Warriors final two games in Sydney, management paid for Sydney-based Warriors fans to go to the games, ensuring brilliant support for the team.
BIGGEST DISADVANTAGE Staying Focused ? On a couple of occasions in 2003, the Warriors absolutely killed sides in the middle-stages of the game. Despite totally dominating games, the Warriors found ways to help their opposition back into it and this shapes as the biggest hurdle coach Daniel Anderson needs to negotiate. On talent alone, only a few NRL sides can match the Warriors, but mentally the team needs to build back into their game the type of consistency they showed in their 2002 Minor Premiership season.
BOTTOM LINE This is one scary side, and the New Zealand fan base is itching for a premiership. Intimidation and expectation should be the greatest drivers in the Warriors machine this season. The Warriors pack can match any in the NRL, the sheer size of some of their three-quarters is frightening, mix in sheer class and skill around the rucks, and you have a contender. A return to the Top 4 is achievable, and a Finals birth should be a formality. Just how far they can go remains purely up to them.
2004 STRONGEST LINEUP 1. B Webb 2. H Fa?afili 3. C Toopi 4. T Martin 5. F Meli 6. L Hohaia 7. S Jones 8. R Villasanti 9. PJ Marsh 10. J Seu Seu 11. A Lauiti?iti 12. A Guttenbeil 13. M Betham 14. S Faumuina 15. W Koopu 16. I Palea?aesina 17. V Anderso
Warrick NICOLSON ========================= Freelance Sports Journalist NICOLSON SPORTS CONSULTANCY Ph: 0402 851 485 Fax: 02 9653 1483 [email protected] =========================