Tonight, Aotearoa Warriors host Canberra Raiders at Mt Smart in a game that is likely to define the 2019 NRL campaign for the Warriors. The Warriors sit 12th on the ladder with 17 points, still in the mix for a top-eight sniff as they are only 3 points behind Wests Tigers who defeated North Queensland Cowboys to move into 7th. The points are neccessary, although building confidence and momentum at this stage of the season is equally as important.
Everything about 2019 has been stop-go, up and down or simply niggly af. The Warriors are yet to genuinely showcase their best footy, either defensively or in attack with either sublime execution of structure or turning up the razzle dazzle. As someone who writes and dwells on Warriors shenanigans, I can't describe Warriors footy as it doesn't really exist and the NRL team has stuttered their way through the season to be be in their usual late-season position.
No Issac Luke tonight, with Karl Lawton stepping in to start. That enables Chanel Harris-Tavita to keep rolling with his bench role after coming in for Kodi Nikorima last week and while it's a bit unfair to compare the two halves, Nikorima's return should be have a visible impact. Harris-Tavita is a strong runner of the footy, without the confidence or zip or Nikorima and despite sharing the kicking duties with Blake Green nicely last week (10 kicks for Harris-Tavita, 11 kicks for Green), or a fairly even split in touches (40 vs Green's 59), I'm intrigued by the running threat offered by Nikorima.
Nikorima's effort vs Cronulla Sharks was above average, but his 13 runs for 125m, 5 tackle busts and 2 offloads in that win show the difference in skillset and intent between the two. Against Parramatta Eels, Harris-Tavita had 8 runs for 53m with no tackle busts and no offloads. Two different games, different situations and combinations, perhaps different game plans but the basic premise of Nikorima's speed, footwork and skill adding a different layer to the Warriors applies. Maybe, the biggest difference between the two is the confidence of the individuals and how the impacts the team.
The influence of Nikorima's running game is merely one small aspect that will be crucial vs Raiders tonight. Everything has to be slick and classy to break down a Raiders defence that is 2nd only to Melbourne Storm for fewest points conceded, with a lack of any legit areas of their team to target; mobile edge forwards to handle Nikorima, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck etc, solid halves defensively, great middle forward crew and a fabulous back-three.
Should the Warriors struggle to rise to this occasion, they will most likely have the game dictated to them by Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson. In Hodgson the Raiders have a wizard controlling the game, the difference about the Raiders in 2019 is that the team is riding a wave, knowing what they are doing is working and the difference in confidence between the two teams could decide the game.
This weekend is a wee bit more enticing than just a super important NRL game for the Warriors though. The reserves and Jersey Flegg are hosting their Raiders equivalent; Warriors reserves are 8th and Mounties are 6th, while Flegg Warriors are 8th and Flegg Raiders are 7th. 2 points separate the two Flegg teams, 1 point separates the two reserve grade teams in Canterbury Cup.
Warriors reserves are 3-1 in their last four games, while Mounties are 0-4 which is compounded by the Warriors being 5-3 at home and Mounties being 3-6 away. The Warriors will face Ata Hingano, who is starting in the halves for Mounties and as Mounties also have Sam Williams in the halves, the battle between those two and the Warriors duo of Hayze Perham and Adam Keighran will be fun to watch.
Josh Curran is part of the wider NRL squad for this week, appearing to jump ahead of Chris Satae, Ligi Sao and Leivaha Pulu in terms of being the next up forward. The reserve grade forward pack is full of lads who are competing for those limited NRL minutes, including Jackson Frei and there's an interesting situation brewing here as someone needs to step up and command further attention as the season hits a climax, thus putting themselves in the mix for a more consistent promotion next season.
Team lists always change late in the build up, but as of now, Phillip Makatoa is on the bench for the reserves and he along with Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard offer a further dash of funk. Tuimavave-Gerrard was efficient at edge forward last wek in a win over Wentworthville, with 11 runs for 118m and that he stays in the squad with the fringe-NRL forwards all named tells you that he is going alright. Makatoa on the other hand is still Flegg eligible and is perhaps the forward prospect who is creeping under the radar, lurking in the shadows of Mt Smart. Their impact off the bench will be as important as what the more senior forwards get up to, regardless the depth of Warriors forwards will be on display.
Unlike the Canterbury Cup teams, there is less of a trend in the form of Raiders and Warriors Jersey Flegg teams. The Raiders are 4-2 away, Warriors 3-3 at home and both have even records in recent weeks. Tyler Slade is likely to make a late move into reserve grade, having been named to start at lock for Flegg after a steady stint as the reserves' hooker; Slade starts and Sean Mullany comes off the bench, both are Flegg eligible.
Temple Kalepo and Taniela Otukolo are super capable hookers for the Flegg team and should Slade wiggle into Canterbury Cup, Brody Tamarua can play middle with Toni Tupouniua moving to edge. Whether that's the shuffle, or there are any other shuffles, the Warriors have the depth across the club to absorb these moves well. Especially with the forwards as this crop of Flegg forwards feel like they have plenty of upside, even more so considering that Jyris Glamuzina has been a consistent presence coming off the bench this season and was forced out of the top-17 this week due to the forwards on offer.
Glamuzina is likely to benefit from a possible Slade promotion, as he was named 18th man and will come into the 17 if moves are made. Paul Turner is again named in Flegg and will partner Sione Moala in the halves, offering an interesting dynamic considering Turner has played four Canterbury Cup games while Moala is at the younger end of the Flegg spectrum. Turner's Canterbury Cup work has come at fullback and off the bench and we haven't seen too much of the Turner/Moala combo this season; if they are the halves combo, they should be able to flex behind this solid forward pack.
In a piece of weird footy nerd information, Paul's brother Lee Turner was with the Warriors after spending time in Sydney. Now Lee is playing for Tweed Heads Seagulls, as a winger/centre and as the Gold Coast Titans aren't in great position, being aligned with a Titans feeder club could present opportunities for Lee.
All three Warriors teams need a win. Not only to keep themselves in the mix for finals footy, from a holistic perspective the club simply needs their teams performing strongly at this stage of the season. What happens this weekend across the three grades will be crucial in how we suss out the 2019 season for the Warriors and a lot could be forgiven if the entire club finds their clutch.
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Peace and love 27.