2023 review: Warriors

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Andy P has the lowdown on the huge surge up the table from the Wahs - check out his review of the 2023 NRL season for the NZ Warriors.

It was the feel-good story of the 2023 NRL season.

The New Zealand Warriors were stuck in Australia for several years due to COVID-19, and finally, the homesick players and coaching staff could get in front of the home fans, but the odds seemed stacked against them. The loss of gun talent Reece Walsh would leave a void. With a rookie coach at the helm and a dismal performance in the last season, the Warriors were rebuilding and would have to endure the hardships that come with that. 

But something else happened, and it was amazing to watch. The team of tired players and staff that had arrived back in Auckland came out firing and maintained an impressive consistency that managed to win the hearts and minds of rugby league fans in New Zealand and across the Tasman. 

The pre-season thrashing dished out to the Wests Tigers was an omen; their round 3 win against the 2022 prelim finalists, North Queensland Cowboys, was to break a 13-game losing streak in Australia.

April's Round 5 gave us the birth of the catch cry of 2023, ‘Up the Wahs', which came hot off the excitement of the Warriors coming back from 20 points down against Cronulla at PointsBet Stadium to win 32-20. This may have been where their belief was born. But the belief seemed to trickle over the Tasman, with many Aussies taking Webster's Wahs as their second team for the season.

With 16 wins and 8 losses, the Warriors propelled themselves into 4th on the ladder, winning 10 of their last 12 games. Thy reached their first preliminary since 2011, but the records and achievements didn't stop there.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak's breakout season saw him get 24 tries to shatter the club's 20-year-old record of 23. Andrew Webster was Dally M Coach of the Year, Shaun Johnson missed Dally M Player of the Year by a whisker, but the honours ran deep in the Warriors ranks. Johnson, Addin Fonua-Blake and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak were all named in the Dally M Team of the Year. Tohu Harris was also a finalist for Prop and Captain of the Year, while Wayde Egan was a finalist for Hooker of the Year.

This was a testament to a team that found career-best form, with 12 Warriors players selected across six squads for the end-of-season Internationals.

The team had the belief, but it wasn't enough to beat a near-perfect Brisbane Broncos side in the Preiminalry finals; they did so much for the game in New Zealand and a sense of excitement for a team not felt for a while.

Turning point

It was a dark and stormy night at Points Bet Stadium, and the Warriors were down 20, but the players all asked themselves if this was something they could tell their grandkids if they won, and they did. In what must be one of the best full-time interviews, Shaun Johnson pulled no punches when he mentioned what the team said to themselves at halftime and that everyone watching could see the difference; they were no longer the unknown.

After a patch of back-to-back losses culminating in a 26-22 loss to Brisbane in Napier over the Origin period, the Warriors had to do some soul-searching again. From that round on, they would not lose back-to-back games again for the rest of the regular season.

What worked

Shaun Johnson found his career-best form to inspire a team of talented individuals. And Andrew Webster was able to get the lads onboard to the belief that they could make it.

A robust forward pack laid a foundation for victory two-thirds of the time the whistle blew game on for the Warriors. Tohu Harris was leading up front, and standing next to him shoulder to shoulder were Addin Fonua-Blake and Wayde Egan. This hard work allowed the halves to send it to their eager outside backs like Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.

What worked was the team all finding their best form and harmony with everyone else to have the club's best performance since 2011. Webster got them to believe.

What didn't work

The Warriors fans held their breath as Shaun Johnson was ruled out with a calf injury for the first week of the finals. Leading the 2023 NRL competition in try assists, line break involvement and one of the best kicking games, Johnson was crucial to guiding his team, but with the loss to Penrith, it was apparent they missed his leadership and energy. And even though that energy and leadership galvanised the team to beat Newcastle in the next round, it would take a mighty effort to stop the momentum of the Brisbane Broncos - one that was beyond a team that had given so much throughout the year.

A blight in the season came off the field with the wrong kind of attention. CEO of major sponsor One New Zealand, Jason Paris, made comments questioning the referring decisions. Paris felt the Warriors had been dealt a harsh hand in Magic Round with an 18-6 loss to Penrith, almost alluding that a conspiracy was afoot. Paris cooled his jets quickly, and it was a minor blemish to the Warrior's best season in a decade.

2023 week-by-week

1Mar 3rdFri 8:00pmH*NewcastleW20-12Wellington16,6764th
2Mar 11thSat 3:00pmASydneyL12-20Allianz16,2677th
3Mar 18thSat 4:30pmANorth QLDW26-12QLD C B17,8185th
4Mar 26thSun 4:00pmHCanterburyW16-14Mt Smart18,5955th
5Apr 2ndSun 4:05pmACronullaW32-30Pointsbet10,8783rd
6Apr 9thSun 6:15pmANewcastleL24-34McD Jones18,0075th
7Apr 15thSat 5:00pmHNorth QLDW22-14Mt Smart23,6954th
8Apr 25thTue 7:00pmAMelbourneL22-30AAMI23,4697th
9Apr 30thSun 4:00pmHSydneyL0-14Mt Smart20,3959th
10May 6thSat 3:00pmH*PenrithL6-18Suncorp50,18311th
11May 12thFri 6:00pmACanterburyW24-12Accor14,2947th
13May 27thSat 7:30pmH*BrisbaneL22-26Napier16,19511th
14Jun 3rdSat 5:00pmHDolphinsW30-8Go Media23,6867th
15Jun 9thFri 6:00pmACanberraW36-14GIO21,0825th
17Jun 23rdFri 8:00pmASt Geo IllaW48-18WIN9,2756th
18Jun 30thFri 8:00pmHSouthsL6-28Go Media22,6128th
19Jul 8thSat 5:30pmAParramattaW46-10CommBank21,6967th
20Jul 16thSun 4:00pmHCronullaW44-12Go Media24,0125th
21Jul 21stFri 8:00pmHCanberraW21-20Go Media19,1123rd
23Aug 4thFri 6:00pmAGold CoastW28-18Cbus20,8773rd
24Aug 12thSat 7:30pmAWests TigersW30-22Hamilton25,1183rd
25Aug 18thFri 8:00pmHManlyW29-22Go Media24,1123rd
26Aug 25thFri 8:00pmHSt Geo IllaW18-6Go Media25,0954th
27Sep 2ndSat 3:00pmADolphinsL10-34Suncorp35,4384th
QFSep 9thSat 4:05pmAPenrithL6-32Bluebet21,525-
SFSep 16thSat 6:05pmHNewcastleW40-10Go Media26,083-
PFSep 23rdSat 7:50pmABrisbaneL12-42Suncorp52,273-

Defining players

With a team like the Warriors firing on all cylinders, we could easily just put the team's list in here now and be done with it. It would be an easy way out, and I think you would all agree, but we do have some notable mentions.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak decided it was time to smash his season try-scoring record and the club's record, going over 20 times in the regular season and ending the full season with 24.

Addin Fonua-Blake's rampaging season through the middle saw him top the charts for most post-contact meters. A pillar of consistency AFB was the forward that teams had to consider in their plan of attack against the Warriors.

Shaun Johnson's contribution to the team this year has never been doubted. And even though he was pipped at the post by Kalyn Ponga for the Dally M Medal, he still made the Dally M team of the year. His peers still voted him as The Players Champion for 2023. The Warriors awarded him the Simon Mannering Medal as the club's best player for the year. For the 33-year-old, it was indeed a year to remember. 

There may have been one more worthy of a mention, and that was the collective force of the Warriors fan base. With the highest average attendance since their inaugural 1995 campaign, the support did not go unnoticed by the playing group. Coach Webster praised the fans' impact and how integral they were in the run to the finals.


Taine Tuaupiki was given the mantle of rookie of the year for the Auckland-based team. Tuaupiki gave us a glimpse of what he could do as part of the 48-12 thumping of Wests Tigers in an NRL trial. Round 3 was his first-grade debut, which was one to remember. The Warriors took down 2022 preliminary finalists North Queensland 26-12, on their Townsville home ground no less.

We must mention a particular rookie, coach Andrew Webster, who won his rookie season as Head Coach, taking what people would see as a team of misfits and turning them into one of the more respected teams of the 2023 NRL competition.

2023 player list

AFOA, Bunty27211--4--
ALE, Tom24191--4--
BARNETT, Mitchell29152--81-
BERRY, Rocco22163--12--
CURRAN, Josh24234--16--
EGAN, Wayde26226--24--
FONUA-BLAKE, Addin27269--361-
FORD, Jackson25244--161-
GOING, Kalani-1------
HARRIS, Tohu31233--12--
JOHNSON, Shaun33258712176--
KOSI, Edward24115--20--
LEIATAUA, Ali201------
LUSSICK, Freddy23141--4--
MARTIN, Te Maire279------
METCALF, Luke241261-26--
MONTOYA, Marcelo272711--44--
NICOLL-KLOKSTAD, Charnze28237--28--
NIUKORE, Marata27223--124-
POMPEY, Adam2527520-601-
ROACHE, Paul-1------
SIFAKULA, Demitric193----1-
SIRONEN, Bayley26242--8--
TEVAGA, Jazz28111--4--
TUAUPIKI, Taine245------
VAILEA, Viliami2051--4--
VOLKMAN, Ronald2131--4--
WALKER, Dylan28243--121-
WATENE-ZELEZNIAK, Dallin282024--96--
WILIAME, Brayden302------

30 players, average age 26.06yrs

Season snapshot

Coach: Andrew Webster
Captains: Tohu Harris (23), Wayde Egan (3), Dylan Walker (1)

Biggest home crowd: 25,095 (vs. St George Illawarra in round 26)
Average home crowd: 22,368

Top pointscorer: Shaun Johnson (176)
Top tryscorer: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (27)

Club award winners

  • New South Wales Cup Players' Player of the Year | Ronald Volkman
  • New South Wales Cup Player of the Year | Kalani Going
  • New South Wales Team man of the Year | Ali Leiataua and Demitric Sifakula
  • One New Zealand Warriors People's Choice | Shaun Johnson
  • NRL Rookie of the Year | Taine Tuaupiki
  • NRL Clubman of the Year | Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
  • NRL Players' Player of the Year | Shaun Johnson
  • Simon Mannering Medal | Shaun Johnson

Looking Ahead 

It is primarily good news for the team and fans. Hot off the back of his Dally M achievement, Andrew Webster's contract as coach was extended by three years to the end of the 2028 season.

The contract extensions didn't stop there, with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak inking in one more year with the New Zealand outfit, which will see him and his fabulous locks of hair at the club till the end of 2025.

Chanel Harris-Tavita and one of the Warriors' favourite sons, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, will come back into the club. This may raise a few eyebrows for the fans and some problems with selection after the scintillating form Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad showed, but it's a good problem to have.

Some more prominent names to depart the New Zealand team include Bailey Sironen, Villiami Vailea and Josh Curran. After five seasons, Curran was off contract at the end of 2024. The club gave Curran the option to leave if he found something, and he will cross paths with his teams wearing Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs colours in 2024.

The only bad news may have been the situation with star forward Addin Fonua-Blake, who had requested a release from the club for compassionate reasons. With this news, it didn't take long for other clubs to send out feelers, as would be expected. Both parties came to an agreement at the 11th hour, and the class forward will run one more year for the Warriors at this stage.

The only other point of interest for this team will be firming for the ANZAC Day match between them and Melbourne Storm to be played in New Zealand. Being part of the ANZAC Day schedule since 2009, the Warriors have failed to win the prestigious clash against Melbourne since 2014. The Warriors gave the Storm a run for their money this year, but still no silverware to take home. 

The Warriors were easily my second team, and to follow this team's journey through the year was the spice and story that rugby league is all about. Up the Wahs for 2024.

Best 17 in 2024

Based on current signings at time of writing

1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
2. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
3. Rocco Berry
4. Adam Pompey
5. Marcelo Montoya
6. Te Maire Martin
7. Shaun Johnson
8. Addin Fonua-Blake
9. Wayde Egan
10. Mitch Barnett
11. Jackson Ford
12. Marata Niukore
13. Tohu Harris

14. Dylan Walker
15. Josh Curran
16. Jazz Tevaga
17. Bayley Sironen