Having rode the wave through the opening rounds of the NRL season, this week's game vs South Sydney Rabbitohs feels like the first opportunity to get a genuine gauge of who or what the 2019 Aotearoa Warriors are. While we don't really know too much about the Warriors, the Rabbitohs are a super solid footy team who have started the season strongly and now present our Warriors with a stiff challenge.
The influence of Wayne Bennett is all over this Rabbitohs team and there is far more substance than fluff in how they operate. Among the best defensive teams, the Rabbitohs don't really offload (13th in offloads) and are 3rd in total run metres via being 1st in 'one pass hit ups'. This paints a picture of a team that plows through the middle, then establishes their attacking structures to shift the footy; expect the Warriors edges to be under huge pressure defensively.
Coming up against such a powerful team, the Warriors will need to gain some level of control of the ruck and the flow of the game. I've talked a lot about the Warriors establishing their schemes of being aggressive and ruthless in dominating early tackles after a good kick as this is a key factor of their work when playing well. This is amplified dramatically against the Rabbitohs, who are 4th in kick return metres and then have the Burgess bros, Damien Cook etc coming in later in the set.
We all know how much of a lie the whole 'big Warriors forward pack' jibber jabber is and against the Bunnies, or the Burgess bros, the Warriors look small. How the Warriors go about limiting the effectiveness of the Burgess bros is going to be extremely interesting and the fact that we are going to learn a lot about the Warriors' ability to slow such impressive forward packs down, is what makes this a gauge-game.
This has not been evident so far in 2019. Manly Sea Eagles thrived with Addin Fonua-Blake and Martin Taupau leading their grunt work, while the loss to Wests Tigers was evenly matched through the middle and the Tigers class getting them points. The Bulldogs and Titans don't have forward packs of any great threat and with this in mind, Manly laid the blueprint down in powerful work through the middle and plenty of shifts to the edges.
I've got no idea what is going to happen. I'm weary that the Warriors could get torched, but hopeful that there has been an abundance of learning and we get to see those lessons put into action.
Ideally Issac Luke plays, to target the Rabbitohs size. Karl Lawton has shown his value as a dummy half and I'm still enticed by the prospect of going small with Lawton and Tevaga on the bench, only to free up Tevaga from dummy half. Regardless of who is playing dummy half, the Warriors will need all their nimble lads to be active around the ruck and this is includes Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Sam Lisone waltzes back into the top-17 after his suspension, despite a guy like Ligi Sao racking up big numbers in limited NRL game time and in reserve grade. A robust performance from Lisone will put in a great position moving forward, which is countered by a lack of discipline (penalties and errors).
The similarity in shapes of Isaiah Papali'i, Bunty Afoa and Lisone isn't ideal. These three could thrive against the Rabbioths bench with their mobility, but the negative here is that they will be easily contained by the Rabbitohs. I'd prefer to see more variety, either in going smaller with Tevaga and Luke/Lawton, or get Sao in and offer a bit more size.
Finally, Chanel Harris-Tavita will be on the same edge as Sam Burgess.
The best Burgess bro will be hunting Harris-Tavita with and without the footy. There is enough in that contest to command our attention, let alone how the Warriors go about slowing the Rabbitohs and establishing their own system.
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Peace and love 27.