NZ Warriors squad still a work in progress

ROBERT LOWE
Last updated 15:30 18/02/2013
Shaun Johnson
Photosport

PIVOTAL: The play of halfback Shaun Johnson will be critical to the NZ Warriors putting a disappointing 2012 campaign behind them this season.

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New coach Matthew Elliott is holding off predicting how well the Warriors will bounce back from a forgettable 2012 season in which they went from 2011 NRL grand finalists to third last.

For Elliott, the answer will come when the competition reaches the hard slog of winter.

For now, it's all about setting and meeting standards.

"Once we get to July, that's when our aptitude and attitude will be tested," says Elliott.

The 2011 grand final season showed the Warriors have a talented squad that can make a real mark in finals footy but the vastly-experienced Elliott is keenly aware that mindset is the key if they're to earn that right again.

"We're not a chance of doing that unless our application is there," he says.

"We're going to set standards. That's our mentality."

Elliott's appointment - along with a new staff - means the Warriors start with a fresh man at the helm for the second year in a row.

After Ivan Cleary left for Penrith in the wake of the 2011 grand final, former Kiwis and Leeds coach Brian McClennan was a popular choice and made a promising start, but then had results spiral downward from mid-July.

By late August, he was gone.

Assistant Tony Iro was made caretaker coach for the final fortnight but the losing streak mounted to a club-record eight matches as the Warriors finished third from bottom.

Elliott has a 2013 squad that has been augmented by the recruitment of two of Melbourne's premiership winners, centre Dane Nielsen and lock Todd Lowrie.

Another arrival is Kiwis halfback/hooker Thomas Leuluai, who is returning from English Super League giants Wigan to the club where he made his NRL debut 10 years ago as a 17-year-old.

But the player losses are at least as significant.

With influential five-eighth James Maloney gone to the Sydney Roosters, there is a crucial selection decision to be made over the halves pairing, although the mercurial Shaun Johnson is bound to feature.

After his spectacular entry into the NRL in 2011, Johnson's form dipped during the course of last year along with the Warriors' struggles and he suffered the ignominy of being dropped for the final match against Canberra.

But he should be primed to rebound.

Elliott has already had one injury setback, losing workaholic hooker Nathan Friend for the start of the season because of shoulder surgery.

He has several options to take over the dummy-half role, including Friend's back-up last season, Alehana Mara, and the choice he makes will be among the points of interest heading into the round-one trip to Parramatta on March 9.

Meanwhile, Elliott is keeping close to his chest the style of play the fans can expect from the Warriors this year.

He says he'd like to think it will be a combination of being able to grind it up the middle and the razzle-dazzle that the club is traditionally known for.

Whatever it turns out to be, it will be built around what he sees as the strengths of his squad.

"With a new coach and a new coaching staff, they're going to have to adapt to a new style of play slightly," he said.

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"What we've tried to do is come up with not Matt Elliott's style of play, but a style of play that suits our team."

 

HOW THE WARRIORS SHAPE UP IN 2013

Premierships: Nil

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2012 - 14th, 2011 - runners-up, 2010 - qualifying finalists

Coach: Matthew Elliott

Captain: Simon Mannering

Gains: Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Todd Lowrie (Melbourne), Dane Nielsen (Melbourne), Dominique Peyroux (Gold Coast), Harry Siejka (Penrith).

Losses: Lewis Brown (Penrith), Micheal Luck (retirement), James Maloney (Sydney Roosters), Ukuma Ta'ai (Huddersfield).

Strength: Despite last year's disappointment, the core of the side which reached the 2011 grand final remains. Talent is not an issue throughout a deep Warriors squad.

Weakness: Lack of continuity. For the second year in a row, the Warriors will go into the season with a new coach and new ideas, meaning it could take a while for the side to find its feet.

Money Man: Shaun Johnson. Dropped for the final match of the Warriors' forgettable 2012 season, but the talented playmaker remains the club's most lively attacking threat.

One to watch: Konrad Hurrell. The outside back brought his tackle-busting ability from the Toyota Cup into his debut NRL season, finishing with the club's equal-best haul of 12 tries, including 11 in a seven-match stretch.

Best team: Kevin Locke, Manu Vatuvei, Dane Nielsen, Konrad Hurrell, Bill Tupou, Shaun Johnson, Thomas Leuluai, Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Ben Matulino, Simon Mannering (capt), Feleti Mateo, Todd Lowrie.

Interchange: Jacob Lillyman, Russell Packer, Elijah Taylor, Ben Henry.

Predicted finish: 6th

- AAP

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