Throughout the 2019 NRL season, Aotearoa Warriors have struggled to extract enough x-factor out of their edge forwards and we now sit in a niggly spot where Adam Blair and Isaiah Papali'i reflect the lack of identity or playing style of the Warriors. Blair has been an easy target, primarily for the perceived lack of value when directly comparing his unknown salary to his statistical output and while that is somewhat fair, of greater concern is Papali'i's plateau.
Like Leeson Ah Mau, I view Blair as being a solid trooper amongst a strong forward pack. Blair has averaged less than 100m per game, in all of his 14 seasons and if anyone bothered to check out Blair's statistics throughout his career, there is no reason why any expectation should be placed on Blair's statistics. While some players have built their careers on putting up big numbers, sometimes resulting in wins and sometimes leaving no correlation between stats and success, Blair's career is built on doing jobs others won't do, effort, attitude and the beautiful art of being a footy dick.
When Blair isn't relied on to be a key contributor, he's far more effective as someone who just does their job. Ah Mau shined with St George Illawara Dragons as he wasn't the leader of the pack, he came off the bench to do what he had to do and enjoyed support from the likes of Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and James Graham. Blair and Ah Mau are now the leaders of the Warriors forward pack, very different roles to what they have done throughout their careers and that presents an interesting dynamic surrounding expectations and performance.
I will chuck up some Blair stats, more to paint a picture about Papali'i's plateau. Blair averages more metres per run than Papali'i (just), more offloads and has almost double the tackling efficiency than Papali'i. Blair concedes a lot of penalties, mainly as someone who pushes the boundaries in the ruck area to see how referees are responding; being a niggly footy dick will result in being penalised.
The Warriors are 10th in penalties conceded, so nothing Blair does discipline-wise is detrimental to the Warriors. The Sea Eagles (3rd), Raiders (4th), Roosters (6th) and Storm (7th) all concede more penalties than the Warriors, resulting in little connection between penalties conceded and overall success.
Papali'i averages more runs and tackles than Blair, however he isn't as efficient and that's the issue with Papali'i at the moment as he doesn't really offer anything unique. There have been moments this season where he have seen Papali'i's attitude on show, a mix of aggressive energy and pure effort to make plays. Just don't expect Papali'i to hit a pass at speed, running a great line or breaking tackles and offloading to spark a move down that edge.
It's easy to see how Papali'i and Blair own these roles under Stephen Kearney as they are both Kearney's type of player. Adding to the antics though has been the absence of Tohu Harris and if Harris was consistently healthy, he would be an automatic starter as an edge forward; both Blair and Papali'i have spent time in the middle this season. Harris is a top-tier edge forward via his footwork, slick hands, size and effort, which puts Harris as an upgrade on either Blair or Papali'i in those roles.
Here is a comparison of the game averages for these three...
Papali'i - 8.3/66 - 7.95m/run - 0.1lb - 0.9tb - 0.5off - 34.9 tackles made/2.7 missed (12.92 per miss) - 0.7err - 0.6pen.
Blair - 7.3/59 - 8.07m/run - 0.1lb - 0.6tb - 1.2off - 30.7/1.5 (20.46) - 0.5err - 1.1pen.
Tohu - 10.7/97 - 9.06m/run - 0.2lb - 1tb - 0.5off - 29.2/2.3 (12.69) - 0.5err - 0.3pen.
Not a huge difference and even with Harris not quite at his best when he has played this season, there's still enough funk there to be an upgrade. Harris has not played since round 14 and it's uncertain as to when Harris will come back into the team, if he does before the season is finished. Moving forward, I can see a Warriors team with both Blair and Papali'i playing through the middle while Harris and someone else settle into edge forward roles.
The Warriors have decent edge forward depth and adding a bit more spark, whether through skill or dynamic running, to the edges will be a narrative to keep an eye on. Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard has settled into this role in Canterbury Cup, while Leivaha Pulu and Josh Curran are slightly ahead of the pack to step up if required. King Vuniyayawa wasn't sighted in reserve grade this season until recently making a come back to the Warriors (must have impressed with Manurewa Marlins) and he's an edge forward who has commanded consistent selection since his return.
Vuniyayawa starts in the middle this week for the reserves, because Tuimavave-Gerrard and Pulu are starting on the edges with Curran at lock. This means that Tuimavave-Gerrard is the only true specialist as the others have filled different roles in Canterbury Cup and NRL, which could be viewed as annoying. Versatility is good though and it's more about what they offer the edge forward role, than whether they are specialists.
Dig deeper and you will find Brody Tamarua and Tom Ale on the edges for Jersey Flegg. These two should graduate to Canterbury Cup next year and are among the best prospects coming through the ranks at Mt Smart, along with Toni Tupouniua (brother of Roosters forward Sitili Tupouniua), Eliesa Katoa and Neyla Masima. Whether middle or edge, there are some extremely talented forward prospects in the Flegg group this year.
Blair and Papali'i were decent vs Manly Sea Eagles. Blair has hovered around the 10m/run mark in the last two games (10.57m/run vs Raiders, 9.71m/run vs Sea Eagles) and had 88.9 percent tackle efficiency in the win over Sea Eagles. Papali'i only averaged 6.5m/run last weekend, but with a tackle bust, 2 offloads and 93.9 percent tackle efficiency, there were signs of what Papali'i can do well as an edge forward.
This weekend, they face the Roosters and this will present immense challenges in attack and defence. John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead rolled out far better numbers than the Warriors duo, to help Canberra Raiders push the Roosters (18-22 win to Roosters) and the Warriors won't have that same attacking flair to fire shots at the Roosters defence. The Roosters themselves have Angus Crichton who is flourishing as an edge forward in place of Boyd Cordner and Mitchell Aubusson barely does anything wrong on the other edge.
That sets the scene for an intriguing fixture for Blair and Papali'i. How the Warriors play their footy means that the edge forwards don't need to rack up big numbers as the back three do plenty of running work, although there needs to be some attacking impetus sparked by the edge forwards to break down the best defences. What Blair and Papali'i do without the footy will obviously be crucial as well and this will be a big test of the perceived strengths of these two Warriors edge forwards.
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