One of the strangest and laziest ideas we have all heard about the Aotearoa Warriors is that they have a big forward pack. This may have been the case once upon a time, although within the past decade, not so much and with the Warriors forward pack being of the smaller, more agile variety in 2018, James Gavet was granted a release from Mt Smart.
Gavet's departure is an interesting wrinkle when discussing the middle forward gang, because Gavet appeared like a monster alongside Bunty Afoa, Agnatius Paasi and Jazz Tevaga. This gave the Warriors middle forwards more balance as they the variety required to consistently perform in the NRL and now, well Gavet ain't there no more.
In replacing Gavet, Leeson Ah Mau returns to Mt Smart and Ah Mau isn't the biggest middle forward going around either. This is where we start to suss out how the Warriors are building their forward pack, specifically their middle forwards as Ah Mau relies primarily on his footwork and mobility to do his job - as opposed to an enforcer type. This is extremely similar to Paasi, who has a massive right-footy step at the defensive line and Afoa, who makes up for his lateral footwork with the sheer speed with which he runs it straight.
Either way, mobility and footwork makes up for the lack of size. Ah Mau is no different and in one of the better forward packs last season, Ah Mau was 2nd in run metres for St George Illawara Dragons with 105m/game. That's cool, yet Ah Mau averaged more metres/game than Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims, who both averaged more runs/game than Ah Mau.
Despite Ah Mau taking more runs/game than bigger names like Jack de Belin and James Graham, Ah Mau still finished the season as more efficient than them and was again 2nd only to Paul Vaughan. Ah Mau and Vaughan were the only Dragons forward to average over 9.5m/run, with Ah Mau averaging 9.63m/run to Vaughan's 9.73m/run; De Belin and Graham averaged less than 9m/run.
On top of that, Ah Mau averaged the fewest missed tackles/game of the Dragons forward pack and barely made an error/conceded a penalty each game. Only 0.5 missed tackles/game, 0.2err/game and 0.3pens/game which was the lowest combination of the Dragons forwards. Then ponder how Ah Mau averaged the fewest minutes of the Dragons forwards.
This all paints a picture of a player who oozes efficiency and is exactly the style of player that I believe coach Stephen Kearney wants in the middle of the park. From Tohu Harris out on the edges, to Ken Maumalo's left foot step, there is footwork throughout the Warriors team and you better be mobile to plug the holes on defence. We could boil the Gavet-Ah Mau situation as moving away from the big, enforcer type and even more towards smaller, skillful, mobile forwards who don't maintain the oomph through the middle.
The offensive prowess of the middle forwards revolves mainly around how they get the team down the field. This still applies to the Warriors, although with Maumalo, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, David Fusitu'a, Peta Hiku, Solomone Kata and Harris, the Warriors can rely more on their outside backs to do the bulk of the graft, allowing the middle forwards to use their energy on defence and offer greater efficiency in attack.
Tuivasa-Sheck, Maumalo, Hiku, Harris, Fusitu'a and Kata ran the most metres/game in 2018, in that order. No Warriors forward averaged over 100m/game other than Harris, that is to say that no middle forward passed that mark and then only Paasi and Gavet averaged over 10runs/game, averaging 10.2runs/game.
As a Warriors middle forward, you better be efficient in what you do. As the outside backs handle the tough, early runs in a set coming out of Warriors territory, there can sometimes only be one or two runs for a middle forward in a set. Then, in good ball, it's all about the speed of the ruck which is a product of technique and footy nous, as much as pure demolition. Chuck in offloads and being a middle forward at the Warriors is an interesting business.
Maybe you like the reliance on outside backs, maybe you just want the forwards doing all the grunt work - up to you. The Warriors finished 7th in run metres this year and 6th in post contact metres, which is solid and reflects where they finished in terms of Finals footy. The thing here though is that in 2017, were 10th in run metres and 14th in post contact metres.
With that splash of context, we can appreciate the dramatic improvement in aspect of footy. Coach Kearney and his ever-impressive staff have taken a team from being among the worst in carting the footy downfield, to being solid in the space of 12 months. This flows into speed of play, winning more rucks and playing more footy on the front foot.
As always when writing at this time of the year, more recruitment moves could be made prior to next season. I'll be intrigued to see whether the Warriors hit the market for another middle forward, my gut tells me that they will be all good with what they have but who knows. That's the whole point of this yarn though, as I reckon the Warriors have a forward pack that is designed to suit the team's needs and I want to see what they have, given a fair crack.
Ah Mau's efficiency and low key dominance for the Dragons eases most concerns. You could make a strong case for Ah Mau being better than Gavet, thus putting the Warriors in a decent position. Along with Ah Mau's arrival, we have clear examples of player development at Mt Smart where someone like Maumalo improved drastically in his first summer with Alex Corvo. Now the Warriors have even more staff of Corvo's calibre and a better idea of their systems, along with more information about where players can get better.
Afoa was the big improver in the forwards and this came with clarity in his role. As Paasi spent more and more time at Mt Smart, he also flourished, joining Isaiah Papali'i in demanding Kiwis squad selection through their NRL performances. This presents hope, or excitement around possible improvements for the likes of Tevita Satae, Sam Lisone, Ligi Sao and Leivaha Pulu.
The competition for a couple bench spots should enhance their improvements. Ah Mau, Paasi, Afoa and Adam Blair are locked in and then we'll have the super juicy battle between Jazz Tevaga and Nathaniel Roache for the bench utility spot; which could have a major impact on how the Warriors play nek season given Tevaga's middle forward role this season. That leaves two bench spots up for grabs and we should expect to see a couple breakout performances from the Satae, Lisone, Sao and Pulu group.
Seeing who is the next big improver feels more groovy than signing someone else to come in and clutter matters further. Ah Mau has far more upside than Gavet, Blair will enjoy consistent middle minutes with Simon Mannering retired and then a healthy Harris/Papali'i edge combo already gives 2019 a different vibe to last season. Foundations have been laid and now a summer of mahi will see the Warriors middle crew start to take shape.
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Peace and love 27.