Diary Of An Aotearoa Warriors Fan: On The Plane To Tiger Town

Having laid the foundations for 2019 down at Mt Smart in a solid win over Canterbury Bulldogs, Aotearoa Warriors now take a minor step forward with their first away trip to Sydney to face Wests Tigers. The Tigers were also round tahi winners, defeating Manly Sea Eagles and this early season flow of enticing games for the Warriors is exactly what we want as we work towards the climax of the NRL season.

That flow sees the Warriors build into their season as they establish fundamentals of their footy. There is nothing to fear in this Tigers team, even with Moses Mbye slotting in at fullback, however the step up from dictating proceedings at Mt Smart and then playing away on hostile turf, ensures an intriguing game from a Warriors perspective.

Issac Luke is likely to return to the team in some capacity, automatically adding an extra wrinkle of funk to the Warriors performance. Nathaniel Roache was exceptional given the circumstances (long injury absence) and the balance between Roache and Jazz Tevaga at dummy half vs Bulldogs not only eased the workload on Roache, it offered variety out of dummy half.

If Luke does return, the make up of the Warriors top-17 would become excessively funky as it's not crazy to suggest that Luke could come in for Sam Lisone - as opposed to replacing Roache or Tevaga. Roache is a weapon with his speed, while Tevaga encapsulates the Warriors style of footy and is crucial to executing that style, thus making it almost impossible to drop him. A bench of Luke/Roache, Tevaga, Leeson Ah Mau and Isaiah Papali'i has me low key excited, especially as it's so unique.

There were only 4 dummy half runs vs Bulldogs, 3 via Roache and 1 via Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the Warriors had less offloads than the Bulldogs (12 vs 14). This has me wondering how these numbers will look for the Tigers game, in conjunction with a far more active plan to target the ruck area. Without Luke, this cornerstone aspect of the Warriors style in plowing through the middle with speed and footwork, wasn't quite as present as it has otherwise been.

It didn't need to be as the Warriors had their way with the Bulldogs. The Warriors big boppers made easy metres, either more or after the Warriors edges had got the Bulldogs retreating; Tohu Harris had 16runs/164 by simply running straight down the Warriors left edge. A better Tigers team, with better defensive schemes will suss that out and I reckon that will see the Warriors rely more on the speed and angles around the ruck to work over guys like Robbie Farah, Ben Matulino and Elijah Taylor.

Peta Hiku was pretty damn solid defensively last week and on Sunday he will line up against Esan Marsters, who is a monster. Not only does Marsters cause damage with his power and footwork, he had 5 of the Tigers 13 offloads last week, meaning that Hiku's job isn't just about stopping Marsters, but ensuring that he limits the offloading. Harris is a key factor in this as he'll be responsible for wrapping up Marsters, while Hiku goes low.

Given the play-makers that the Tigers have, I'm leaning towards being more interested in how the Warriors defend. Being away from home is also a factor and while I'm confident that the Warriors can win a high-scoring affair, that's not their current identity. Farah's influence was huge in the win over Manly as he scored two tries and has 7 kicks (Marshall had 8), which means that the Warriors defensive focus has to start and zone in on the ruck area.

We've seen how the Warriors can do this and do it well as they have defended inside-out and then jammed heavily under Kearney. Their effort and concentration in plugging gaps around the ruck and working on the inside shoulders will be tested. A test I expect them to pass and then it will be a case of how they go about scoring points away from home.

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Peace and love 27.