Leading into the weekend's fixture vs St George Illawara Dragons, there was a wee shuffling of Aotearoa Warriors cards that had a reasonable impact on the Warriors performance. No Issac Luke resulted in Karl Lawton coming into the top-17, along with Ligi Sao and both took their opportunities strongly in the second half, right when the Warriors needed a spark to cash in on their grinding middle stanza.
Talking about Warriors selections is a bit weird at this point because, as I alluded to last week, coach Stephen Kearney is a bit confusing in how he selects his team and then how he hands out minutes. Late in the second half, there was a good/bad situation where Nathaniel Roache came back on to the field after Lawton had been tearing the Dragons up around the ruck, only for Roache to leave the field with what looked to be another back injury.
That's not good, although it did allow Lawton to get back to tearing the Dragons up around the ruck for a 7 minute stint at the end. Lawton's first stint was 12:54mins and at that stage, I'm thinking to leave Lawton on the field and let him finish the game. Coach Kearney said nah bo and unfortunately for Roache, the footy gods wanted Lawton on the field.
Roache had been solid to that point. There was however the Cameron McInnes try in which he steam-rolled his opposite and given that Roache's greatest asset is his speed, it would have been nice to have more than 2 dummy half runs. 2 for 25m is a nice return, but in 60 minutes it's not enough and reminds me of earlier in the season when I highlighted a lack of Warriors dummy half running.
Lawton played 20 minutes and had 4 dummy half runs for 86m, doubling Roache's output and without a few of those runs, the Warriors wouldn't have been in field position to put the Dragons under pressure. The Warriors are currently 12th in dummy half runs and without Lawton's 4 scoots, the Warriors would be 14th.
What's weird is that Lawton doesn't look overly fast, or powerful. Yet he ripped the Dragons apart and as the Warriors continue to develop their footy throughout the season, being far more active around the ruck will be a key factor. Based on how Lawton changed the game for the Warriors, there should be more opportunities, but the best case scenario is that Lawton is given a 20-30min stint full of energy.
Think about how I described Blake Green's kicking game and thus the Warriors tactics; Green put up the same kick over and over again, keeping the footy in play and forcing the Dragons to graft their way out of their own end. After that was established, Lawton pounced on the tired Dragons and having a fresh body at that stage of the game was crucial. This isn't new for Lawton either as he is 6th in dummy half runs in reserve grade and averages 3.6 dh-runs per game.
I'm still in favour of Issac Luke being the starting hooker and playing the bulk of the minutes, especially now that the spine has hit a nek level. The battle is for that impact off the bench and Lawton showcased what he can do, while Roache certainly has x-factor but is battling injury.
With Adam Blair out, in came Ligi Sao and Sao took his opportunity through the middle before sliding out to cover the absence of Tohu Harris. In 37mins, Sao had 4 offloads which was the most of any Warriors player and this injection of funk coincided with Lawton scampering around the middle. Suddenly, after the Dragons had battled with the Warriors set for set, there is a new look to how the Warriors are playing via Lawton and Sao.
Sao is 8th for Canterbury Cup offloads and is also a dominant force running as the combination of Sao being 25th in run metres and 38th in all runs results in Sao averaging 10.73m/run. Of all the Canterbury Cup players with more run metres than Sao, only two have also played six games like Sao and they are both outside backs, making Sao the only forward to have over 900 run metres from six games.
We saw that Sao offers a nice dose of size and mobility, which will hopefully earn more opportunities. Sao's inclusion came with Blair out and while it's trendy to blame Blair (or Luke) for the Warriors issues, Blair will return to the top-17 when available. Having Jazz Tevaga and Lawton on the bench means that there is one less big bopper (Sao), offering a bit of a puzzle to work through to get the best results.
Ultimately though, we were graced with a geeze at Warriors depth. Prior to this we saw Patrick Herbert step up and in their first major appearances of 2019, Lawton and Sao added value, perhaps game-changing value.
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Peace and love 27.