Round 1: Warriors v Knights preview
The stadium affectionately known as the Cake Tin will see two sides starting to put the ingredients together as the Warriors take on the Newcastle Knights in Wellington.
A permanent return to Aotearoa is going to be a big boost for the Warriors in 2023, after much was expected of them once they got back to Auckland and New Zealand on the whole late last year. However, the turmoil of the season and a number of tough contests meant that the Warriors couldn't dominate in their handful of games back home in 2022.
Going through the pre-season challenge with a win and a loss, the Warriors will have some confidence with a big win over the Tigers in Round 1, where they looked very crisp even though their opponents were very poor. The second trial match wasn't as good of a showing, with a defeat against the Storm. Having said that, it was a tight contest where neither side were very good for the most part, before Melbourne ran away with the contest.
New coach Andrew Webster has filled his Warriors side with a number of big name recruits, including the likes of Marata Niukore, Dylan Walker, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Te-Maire Martin - all of whom are making their club debuts as the NZ side starts a new era.
The Newcastle Knights finished 2022 down in 14th position, and with pessimism high already from their fans and the Rugby League public, they're going to need a big start to the season - not only to get the monkey off their backs, but also to relieve the pressure on coach Adam O'Brien who seems to be on the outer with the fanbase.
The pre-season challenge was less than ideal for the Knights, who fell to two comfortable defeats against the Sharks and the Eels. Against Cronulla there were plenty of errors, with two late tries making the scoreline respectable. Meanwhile against the Eels, the Novocastrians were completely outplayed, and a decision to only play Kalyn Ponga in his new five-eighth role (where he's been named this Friday) for just 40 minutes raised plenty of eyebrows.
Last meeting: Round 12 2022 - Warriors 16 Knights 24
Who to watch: The key is going to be in the halves for both sides but for the Warriors it's down to an old face where their season's fortunes lie. A ripped Shaun Johnson has impressed in the off-season with his physique but at 32 years old, the Kiwi international is at the back end of his career and arguably has failed to deliver for quite a while. The Warriors are going to need Johnson firing if they are to win and have a big season.
Kalyn Ponga is one of the most hyped up players in the game but personally he isn't a top 20 player in the game for mine. It might be harsh words, but the QLD representative has delivered almost zilch to the Knights when put up against the hype he generates. A move to #6 is supposed to be the big key for Newcastle but with little experience in the halves and only 40 minutes pre-season, he is going to need to step up in attack. Defensively Ponga is going to find himself in the front line and he's already proven to be a liability there at times.
The favourite: The Warriors are strong favourites for the contest, with a strong line-up and being at home in NZ.
My tip: The Warriors should be a much stronger side in this one, the Knights have a couple of good players but the connection and boost that the home side have - especially back across the Tasman - should see them get a much needed first round win. Warriors by 12.
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