We've finally got an Aotearoa Warriors team to sink our teeth into for the round one clash at Mt Smart vs Canterbury Bulldogs on Saturday and while it's a beautiful thing, there isn't a whole lot of juicy funk to satisfy my cravings. This however, is fantastic and a fairly simple team selection for round one leaves a lot of room for tinkering as the season progresses, especially with Issac Luke and Isaiah Papali'i to return to the top-17.
As expected, surface scratchers are all talking about Adam Keighran. It was fairly predictable that the kiwi mainstream media would focus all their attention on Keighran's selection, in the same sense that it became fairly predictable that Keighran would be selected. I definitely find interest in Keighran's selection, however I'm of the view that no major judgements will be made about Keighran as an NRL half until at least 10 games have been played.
This goes both ways - positive and negative. The Keighran/Blake Green combination will take time to settle and no celebrations about how awesome Keighran is should be planned until we've seen him come up against different teams, who have different defensive schemes. That also means that after a month or so, other teams will have a better information base of what Keighran offers (footage, stats etc) and thus as the season goes on, opponents will be better equipped to deal with whatever Keighran does well or poorly.
With this in mind, it's not so much about Keighran, but about how the team and key lads like Green and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck combine as a collective. Chuck Adam Blair and Tohu Harris into that mix, because one of them will have to help Keighran defensively as he settles into NRL intensity.
Which brings me to the nitty-gritty of this first team list from Stephen Kearney as Blair has been named on an edge, even with Papali'i out of action. Blair may slide into the middle, especially as Blake Ayshford has been named on the bench as outside back/edge forward cover, but the mere fact that Kearney is starting the season with Blair and Harris as edge forwards has me low key fizzing.
Both are defensively sound and should sharpen up the edge defences, with an emphasis on helping Keighran. Both have high work rates, thus enabling the Warriors to jam towards the middle on defence, pushing their opponents to the outside and then covering the insides hard and making tackles out near the sidelines. This was a huge factor in the improved Warriors defence last season and now with Blair and Harris to be given consistent game time with their edge combos; it could get even better.
These two are also super skillful, making them focal points of attacking raids down the edges. Last season, Harris was part of the dominant right edge, while Papali'i's left edge wasn't quite as clinical. As we move throughout the season, expect to see similar usage and effectiveness from either edge as Blair offers more passing/offloads than Papali'i.
Along with the Blair/Harris edges, we have had noise about Peta Hiku and Solomone Kata swapping sides. I'll hold off on going deep into that idea until I see it in action, however in basic terms it sounds good; Hiku's got the attacking prowess to feed Maumalo, Kata's left foot steps get him on the outside instead of back towards the middle.
Leeson Ah Mau will come off the bench and given that Ah Mau was the Dragons most efficient forward last season, coming off the bench, this is a cool wrinkle to the team selection. This should ensure consistent go-forward and Ah Mau is likely to thrive against the Bulldogs bench. The idea of Ah Mau operating with Jazz Tevaga is delightful as well.
That's if Tevaga plays as a middle forward, or at hooker as Nathaniel Roache starts at hooker with Issac Luke out injured. My guess is that Tevaga will come on as a middle forward while Roache finishes his shift, then Tevaga will move into dummy half for a 5-10min stint either side of half-time. The key point here being that there should be some crossover, allowing Tevaga to do what he does best.
Overall, don't get too attached to this team selection. A lot changes throughout the season and this is merely the group selected for round one, nothing more. Now is not the time for grand conclusions and after this game is not that time either - we all know how long an NRL season is.
We've got our first team list, which is nothing more than that hit from the buckie to get us in the zone. Ideally the Warriors win, which given the players missing would be a positive moving forward. This is about picking up on trends, seeing nuances of their game and preparing for the long slog of another NRL season.
I can't really go any further into a preview, for that reason. I just want to watch the Warriors play footy and see Mt Smart rocking with positive vibes.
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Peace and love 27.