The NRL season has snuck up on us and as we near our first taste of 2019 Aotearoa Warriors, don't expect too many dramatic team selections for round tahi. In pondering how coach Stephen Kearney will select his top-17 for the first outing, I settled on a general belief that Kearney will play it safe early in the season and through natural variables like injury, suspension and then poor showings, Kearney will get into the nitty-gritty of his squad.
With that in mind, I've whipped up my top-17 for round one. Or, should I say my predicated top-17 in the sense that this is what I predict Kearney will roll out - because none of our opinions actually matter.
Fullback: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Wings: Ken Maumalo, David Fusitu'a.
Centres: Solomone Kata, Peta Hiku.
Halves: Blake Green, Adam Keighran.
Hooker: Issac Luke.
Middles: Agnatius Paasi, Leeson Ah Mau, Adam Blair.
Edges: Tohu Harris, Isaiah Papali'i.
Bench: Jazz Tevaga, Bunty Afoa, Sam Lisone, Lachlan Burr.
There is no real need for any immediate changes to the backline, other than the obvious replacement for Shaun Johnson. Keighran feels like a more solid option than Chanel Harris-Tavita and Hayze Perham, then Keighran proved himself to be a more solid option in his trial performances.
Despite not having the x-factor of Johnson, or even someone like Perham who will be a key lad to keep an eye on in reserve grade as he gets comfy playing against men, I'm low key excited to see Keighran/Green lead the team. There is more than enough attacking impetus in this team for the halves to direct traffic, execute plays and put various weapons in the right places. Well, compared to selecting Harris-Tavita or Perham. Any x-factor offered by them is out-weighed by a vibe that Keighran is simply more ready for NRL footy.
The only other slightly contentious selection in the backline is the centres, where I expect Kearney to re-up on Kata and Hiku - both of whom have had issues. I have consistently highlighted that one of the big shifts at Mt Smart has come in player development and if I can see this, obviously Kearney knows and has confidence in the club's ability to help players get better. Thus, we can expect Kata and Hiku to be better.
Kata would have been tasked with offering more variety and play-making at centre. His left-foot stepping back towards the middle was predictable for opposition defences and was fairly easy to mop up once defences knew it was coming. Interestingly, Kata played on the right in the trials vs Wests Tigers and Hiku on the left; Kata's footwork then enables him to get on the outside of his defender and thus making it easier to feed his winger.
It wasn't just Hiku who shifted to the left, as Tohu Harris played left edge after playing right edge last season. When Harris came to the Warriors, I thought he'd play left edge given that he had played on the left at Melbourne Storm, including a stint alongside Blake Green - Cooper Cronk always played right edge.
This leads into another low key selection query as there could be a move to the middle for Isaiah Papali'i, with Adam Blair moving to the edge. Blair has tended to play right edge (memories of him on the right for Melbourne Storm) and Harris playing left, could signal a permanent move to right edge for Blair. Last season Blair played right edge when Harris was out injured, so what happens when both are fit will be interesting.
I chose to play it safe in predicting my top-17 with Blair in the middle and Papali'i on the edge. I'm not confident about that and I expect Papali'i to play middle at some stage this season, if not all season.
The Jazz Tevaga vs Nathaniel Roache battle is extremely interesting and I reckon we'll see a continuation of last season, with Roache worked back into big boy footy and greater minutes. To suggest that Roache should be on the bench just because he's fit, completely ignores how influential Tevaga was last season and how his style of footy aligned with the general Warriors style. This idea only increases if Blair is playing on an edge, as Tevaga then offers the offloads and skill in the middle that the Warriors love.
Playing both on the bench would be funky, although very brave. Having two small lads on the bench obviously brings with it a variety of issues, however there is no other way to have both Tevaga and Roache in the same team. Tevaga is likely to get first crack and then, via the versatility of guys like Papali'i and Blair, we could see Tevaga and Roache on the same bench at some stage this season.
On the bench, there are two spots up for grabs as Agnatius Paasi, Leeson Ah Mau and Bunty Afoa are top-17 certainties. Last season Ligi Sao started the season and was pretty good, before being banished from NRL footy and we then had sporadic sightings of Sam Lisone, Tevita Satae and Leivaha Pulu. Add Lachlan Burr into that group and there are options, which depend on your personal opinions.
I like Burr, because of his size/mobility/skill combo. Pulu appears to be slightly down in the pecking order having, as do Sao and Satae didn't crack this weekend's NRL trial squad. This makes me think that Lisone may be in for an early dig to make that bench spot his own and if Lisone is playing to his potential, his style is nicely suited to what the Warriors want from the middles.
As of now, I'm leaning towards Lisone and Burr along with Afoa. Burr can cover the edges, although Papali'i/Blair will be most likely to move to the edge and leave these lads to play in the middle.
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Peace and love 27.