Throughout the 2018 season, even going back to this time last year, Aotearoa Warriors had an abundance of outside backs or more specifically those of the centre variety. Other than the steady rotation of players used as middle forwards from week to week (due to injuries etc), the ins and outs at centre provided a huge point of intrigue and with the Warriors being busy in the player market, this can only get funkier.
The odd thing is that this is restricted to centre. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's the fullback and captain, meaning that he is locked down to start every week. As we saw during the 2018 season though, an injury to Tuivasa-Sheck can influence what happens at centre as the prime candidate to replace Tuivasa-Sheck is Peta Hiku and depending where Hiku is otherwise playing, this can nudge players out or open doors.
Hiku will most likely offer fullback cover again, during the 2019 season. Don't sleep on Hayze Perham getting a sniff if Tuivasa-Sheck is out though as Perham slotted straight into reserve grade after leaving Rotorua Boys High School, thus skipping Jersey Flegg footy and is clearly being primed for NRL footy.
David Fusitu'a and Ken Maumalo have the wing spots locked down, which is perhaps the biggest change from this time last year. Fusitu'a was and is always going to be a first choice winger, but coming into last season I was curious about Maumalo's place in the team given the signings that had been made. Maumalo exploded into 2018 as the most improved Warrior and Maumalo's development saw him become safe under the high ball, showcase some nimble footwork and go nek level in terms of his involvement. That resulted in Maumalo starting all five Kiwis Tests this year.
This year we saw Hiku and Solomone Kata given most of the centre opportunities, with Gerard Beale adding the depth. Kata was given plenty of time at centre, playing the most minutes of the Hiku/Beale/Kata trio and finishing third behind Fusitua and Maumalo for total minutes played. On top of that, Kata only played centre where Hiku and Beale are more versatile and their minutes were spread between fullback, wing and centre.
I like that Kata played the most minutes, let me establish that hard and fast. Moving forward, this is a super complex situation as you'll read and I'm not sure what role Kata plays long-term, but as the most unknown quantity of that trio, coach Stephen Kearney gave Kata settled game time to develop. That settled game time then gives Kearney a base from which he can assess Kata more accurately and we'll find out the results during next season.
Already, the Warriors have three lads trying to squeeze into two spots. Junior Pauga was an exciting outside back prospect who returned from knee injury this year to play wing/centre in reserve grade, now he's the only lad from reserve grade in this position who has departed - Pauga, Maitu Love-Henry and Patrick Sipley all went to Wynnum-Manly Seagulls. That is to say that this situation is way more funkier now as the Warriors have only released one prospect, while welcoming in a couple.
Job-doer Anthony Gelling has also departed, opening a pathway for someone to make the reserve grade centre spot their own. Now is also a good time to remind you that Blake Ayshford's still on the roster. Ayshford can very easily step into NRL minutes at centre and is the most NRL-ready of the reserve graders, yet not he is stuck behind the trio trying to fit into a two-seater. Every team needs a couple players like Ayshford, who aren't on big contracts and offer value through their reliability and team-first vibes.
I highly doubt we will see much more from Ayshford as a Warrior in the NRL and that's a beautiful thing as he's given the club great service. He low key deserves to lead the reserve grade youngsters and live comfortably as a Warriors vet.
So far in the spring months, Aotearoa Warriors have signed Taane Milne and Adam Pompey on trial contracts as well as maybe adding Patrick Herbert in some capacity. The Herbert yarn has confused me as there hasn't been much noise around Herbert, making it hard to go all in on the Warriors getting the Dragons outside back and while the Warriors offered great clarity in announcing a few signings including Adam Keighran, nothing was said about Herbert.
This photo though appears to show Milne far left, Tuivasa-Sheck and then someone who looks a lot like Herbert far right:
Second from left also looks a lot like Neria Fomai, Samoan Sevens international.
Who knows how Fomai fits in, this photo does suggest that Herbert is Mt Smart gang gang, at least in a trial capacity. That he wasn't announced as getting a trial contract and as Herbert is a highly touted prospect, too good for a trial contract may suggest that he has been signed to a contract-contract but the official announcement is yet to come. The major point here is that Herbert is also primarily a centre, who then dabbles in wing and fullback.
This gives us Kata, Hiku and Beale in the top-tier. Then Ayshford, Milne, Herbert and Pompey in the second-tier. The third-tier is for younger lads like new recruit Selestino Ravutaumada, or Jersey Flegg soldier Patrick Elia . Of the second-tier, Milne and Herbert are the blokes to watch in terms of competing for NRL centre minutes at some stage next season, while Pompey is in need of more reserve grade time after playing a game for Wyong Roos this year while still being Flegg eligible.
Such depth is also why I believe Keighran has been signed as a half. Sure, Keighran is versatile and that's always nice, but why would the Warriors sign a sometimes centre when they have blatantly recruited specialist outside backs and even specialist centres? Even more so as they have a hole in the back up halves spot, which Keighran will fill.
The idea of all of this is to offer my views on what coach Kearney will do, not what I want to happen. This starts with Milne's contract situation and whether he gets upgraded, then more clarity around Herbert's situation as well, although I doubt these niggly details will impact how the Warriors start the season. I expect Kata and Hiku to start, the main battle this summer feels like it will be between Hiku and Beale in a repeat of last season.
Hiku and Beale were both on tour with the Kiwis, so they won't return to training at Mt Smart for a while. Neither played for the Kiwis on tour though and while I predict Kearney will roll with Hiku ahead of Beale, this is still the toughest selection decision at the Warriors ... that ain't changed. Right now though, the Warriors have brought in centre options with more upside than Gelling and Pauga, alluding to the recruitment wizardry of the Warriors. Milne and Herbert have the potential to be long-term NRL centres and they'll be eager to complicate matters even further for the coach.
Reserve grade will be a whirlpool of complications and overall, we may see a fair amount of talent slide back into local Auckland footy given the limited spots up for grabs. Perham is the reserve grade fullback, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad the consistent reserve grade winger and Ayshford does his job their each week. Gelling and Pauga are gone, meanwhile exciting wing prospect Lewis Soosemea will want steady reserve grade minutes.
Here's a quick geeze at the reserve grade depth...
Fullback: Perham, Herbert.
Wing: Nicoll-Klokstad, Herbert, Soosemea, Ravutaumada.
Centre: Ayshford, Milne, Herbert, Pompey, Ravutaumada.
I chucked Ravutaumada in there because he is on a development contract. This doesn't include those from Jersey Flegg, most of whom will be in Flegg again as part of the Warriors using Flegg to develop younger players; 17/18-year-olds as opposed to 20-year-olds. Regardless, that brief exercise outlines the depth at Mt Smart and more importantly the talent of the depth. Depending on how Kearney operates, each week could then see who ever of the Hiku/Kata/Beale trio isn't playing NRL, drop down to reserves.
Last season, the depth was also evident and while we still have the same trio competing for NRL minutes, there is the major difference in quality of those in the next tier down moving into the 2019 season. Not only are the new recruits capable of consistently playing NRL, they are hungry to do so and as we blend them in with those already at Mt Smart, the Hunger Games have started.
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Peace and love 27.