As Shaun Johnson explores his new surroundings, Aotearoa Warriors move forward in their summer preparations without their starting halfback. However you view Johnson's departure, he was the last representation at Mt Smart of the past 10 years, the remaining piece of the previous era and in reflection, it only feels right that the winds of change that swept through Mt Smart to rebuild the foundations have now blown Johnson out as the last act of change.
All my energy now sits in moving forward, walking down this new path of a completely new Warriors vibe permeating from Mt Smart. Some may still be stuck contemplating who was right and who was wrong, which is fair enough given the way this has all played out in the media as it can leave you wondering 'how did we get to this point, so quickly?' I'm not here to roll through the whole timeline, sussing out who did what and all of that, yet I do think there's one idea that can help us move forward into the new era of Warriors footy.
My gut feel is that the Warriors, led mainly by their one voice in Cameron George are comfortable with where they now sit. Highlighting the one voice idea is important as it shows leadership from George, allows for clarity in expressing the Warriors perspective and as I think George is operating as the one voice and not the one brain, all the Warriors public messages feel as though they have been fleshed out by the brains-trust.
I like that and I like that coach Stephen Kearney has been allowed to get on with his job, while others do their job. I can definitely understand that the Warriors probably didn't want Johnson leaving ahead of 2019 and were merely laying down their perspective on Johnson, prior to him coming off-contract which would have helped Johnson if anything. The Warriors told Johnson to explore the market, giving Johnson ample time to see what the buzz is for his services. Johnson then decided to leave his contract early.
Based on information that has come via mainstream media about Johnson's value outside of playing NRL games and where he sits in terms of Warriors leadership/culture, one would suspect that the Warriors were aware of the possibility that Johnson wouldn't appreciate not being wanted. Perhaps the Warriors knew, again based on their experiences with Johnson on a daily basis, that Johnson would get to this point.
Either way, the Warriors were comfortable to part with Johnson.
From a business perspective, the Warriors have a bloke who can absorb the loss of Johnson in captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Tuivasa-Sheck's a young Samoan-kiwi from South Auckland, with x-factor to rival Johnson and when Tuivasa-Sheck was made captain, that was an initial hit to Johnson's status as the #1 Warrior. The message was clear then and now, it's the Tuivasa-Sheck show and along with other funky initiatives from George in the business department, the Warriors will be fine selling tickets and continuing to trend northwards.
The main crux of this moving forward idea though, sits in who will partner Blake Green in the halves. Understandably, when names like Peta Hiku and Tohu Harris get floated as possibilities, this whole situation can feel like a monumental shambles. Let's get those doomsday ideas out of the noggin' though because the chances of Hiku or Harris playing more than five games in the halves alongside Green, are slim.
I'm not all-in on the Warriors hitting the player market for a half this summer. Names like Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses have been thrown around, along with Kodi Nikorima. The Warriors were previously interested in Te Maire Martin as well, although he's got a starting gig alongside Michael Morgan lined up in the post-JT era. Nikorima is the funkiest of those options, while Norman and Moses feel like too much like Johnson.
AJ Brimson's been mentioned and we can't forget this Dylan Brown get from the Parramatta Eels junior ranks. Ultimately, any half is being mentioned by anyone who can think of a good reason why and this conveniently ignores what that player might want. Take Nikorima for example, who has just had a big coaching change at Brisbane Broncos and along with having all his whanau in Brisbane, may want to see if Anthony Seibold can unlock the Nikorima/Milford halves combo.
Brimson's got everything laid out for him at Gold Coast Titans and the Titans are steadily improving. Building the Titans up is a realistic reason to stick with them at the moment. The Warriors have signed Nathan Cayless and Greg Boulous as reserve grade and Jersey Flegg coaches, who of whom have worked in the Parramatta system; hence the rumours about Brown.
Brown may want to reward the Eels for scouting him, getting across the ditch and developing him. Parramatta's in a state of flux and Brown will get a chance in the halves over the next 18 months, which opens the pathway for Brown to want to stay. Other than Cayless and Boulous working with Brown in various capacities, Brown played alongside Paul Turner in Northern Swords (Northland) age group teams in the halves and that may spark Brown into making a move back to Aotearoa.
That's why the Brown idea is kinda interesting, however it would result in Brown joining young halves prospects Turner, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Adam Keighran and possibly Hayze Perham. Signing another one of those type of halves seems a bit weird and if the Warriors are to sign someone this summer, it will be an older half with experience at this level who can immediately contribute.
Which leaves me with the current crop of halves already at Mt Smart. Don't get caught up in the Warriors now having a cool milly to spend, as if they need to spend that money. Johnson's salary can and probably will be used to keep the Warriors in the market, ready to pounce on circumstances; shit hits the fan at that club and player X wants out type of circumstance. I highly doubt that Johnson's salary is now being used to go head-hunt players and the Warriors will be patient here, ideally highlighting needs early next season in the heat of battle to suss out who they want to sign.
There's no rush, with any of this and that's because the Warriors roster is fine for 2019. 'Fine' is exactly how we want our roster because we've had to endure years of having big names on paper and not living up to expectations. Warriors fans should be wanting a fine roster, that is slept on and can then exceed expectations.
Most importantly, it's a fine roster but it's an experienced roster. Led by Blake Green in the halves, this Warriors group (staff included) is designed to welcome in a young play-maker and allow for that youngster to do their job. The Warriors have assembled a staff roster that is the best they've ever had and with older player such as Green, Tuivasa-Sheck, Harris, Adam Blair, Leeson Ah Mau, Gerard Beale and Issac Luke at Mt Smart, I couldn't think of a better situation for a young half.
The Warriors allowed Mason Lino to cash in on his nice performances last season and that's exactly the type of environment that has been enhanced since the season ended. Lino had his best NRL-stint as a Warrior in 2018, because he could slot in, do his job and compliment those around him. In Lino we have a nice example of a fringe-NRL player coming into the halves and looking better than did in previous opportunities. Now the same idea applies to Keighran and Harris-Tavita.
Yes, because they are my leading candidates right now. Interestingly, Keighran was signed before Johnson decided he wanted out of Mt Smart and that reflects well on Keighran as the Warriors seemed to want him in their system regardless of how the Johnson situation played out. The casual fan doesn't really know anything about Keighran, hence their caution in being content with what is at Mt Smart; the Warriors only need one of these guys to do their job in a team that will rally around their young play-maker.
This sets up a huge summer for these halves prospects as they are competing for a starting role - even if the Warriors do want to sign someone this summer, the competitive vibes are ideal. Someone from the group of Warriors halves prospects will demand selection and by round one, they'll deserve that starting role. With Green as the anchor, I'm excited to see who is capable of complimenting Green's experience.
The Warriors halves prospects are all at different development stages as well, which should further bump up excitement. Keighran and Harris-Tavita are on the cusp, having toiled hard in reserve grade this year. Perham also toiled hard in reserve grade, but at fullback and while his skill-set may be funky alongside Green, Perham is behind the other two in terms of being an NRL half option. Turner is the youngest of the group and may be the most talented as a half, however he needs reserve grade footy first.
Bring this back around to the Warriors being comfortable in their current position; they now have confidence in their coaching, training and culture to develop players. The evidence is laid out, whether it's the quality of staff they have recruited or in individual players like Ken Maumalo who went from being a ho-hum NRL winger to starting all five Tests for Aotearoa after one summer.
If anyone in Aotearoa trusts the development systems now at the Warriors, it's those who allowed Johnson to explore his NRL value. We've got super short-term/emergency options, mid-term options and long-term options already at Mt Smart, plus the club is nimble, agile in how they can use their salary cap moving forward. With all that in mind, it's easy to move forward and be excited about what is to come.
We've been watching the winds of change blow through Mt Smart. Changing this and that, small changes that over time accumulate to a whole new Mt Smart. The culmination is the biggest change of them all and now we can genuinely move into a new era.
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Peace and love 27.