Warriors zero in on potential as NRL takes notice
THE Warriors returned to finals football for the first time since 2011, breaking the equal longest playoff drought in the league.
That might be as far as New Zealand went but it was a bumper season on and off the field with a number of stars returning to form and the fans flooding back to Mt Smart Stadium.
For so long the Warriors were the poster boys of unrealised potential but in 2018 they went a little way towards reaching it.
WHERE THEY FINISHED
8th (first week of finals)
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Beating the best teams in the competition is what needs to happen if a team has genuine premiership aspirations and the Warriors just couldn't close the deal against the big guns.
They beat the Rabbitohs and Roosters in the first four rounds but after that went 5-7 against teams that finished in the top eight. That's good enough to make the finals, but not win the title.
They also struggled to keep their best team on the park all season. Tohu Harris was excellent when he played, but missed eight matches through a variety of injuries. Blake Green, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke were also missing due to ailments at various times. Premiership teams need luck in the injury department and the Warriors just didn't quite get it.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
There's far too much doom and gloom following New Zealand's finals loss to Penrith. It's worth remembering they only finished one win off the competition lead and how far they came in a season many predicted them to win the wooden spoon.
Issac Luke had his best season since his Rabbitohs days, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck exploded back into life and Blake Green and Tohu Harris proved they're worth their weight in gold. David Fusitu'a continued his rise as one of the game's top finishers. Formerly maligned players like Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo and Bunty Afoa all improved markedly, Isaiah Papali'i emerged as a star of the future and Adam Blair, who was derided as a signing, had one of the best years of his career.
The Warriors were out of sorts in their loss to Penrith in the finals but the effort never waned, and that's the greatest difference for this team compared to those of the past. Many of their finals rookies will learn a lot from the defeat.
STATS THAT SUM UP THE SEASON
New Zealand's 8-4 record on the road was the best in their history and the equal best of anyone in the competition
MAIN AREA THEY NEED TO IMPROVE
There isn't a single specific area the Warriors need to improve in, they just need a slight raise across the board to become an elite level team in the NRL. This year redefined what was possible for the Warriors and it made the league take them seriously for the first time in a long time. They know what it takes to succeed now and that will be invaluable knowledge going forward. Just a few more points, a few less errors, a bit more injury luck and this team can win a premiership.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON
Knocking over the then undefeated Dragons in Round 7 in front of a frenzied home crowd without Johnson was the club's best win in years. Mason Lino stood up when it counted and Luke had one of his best ever games in first grade. Like the best Warriors wins, it made everything feel possible.
LOWLIGHT OF THE SEASON
In Round 17 the Warriors travelled to Penrith to take on the Origin depleted Panthers and a win would have put them in the top four. They were without Tohu Harris but were otherwise at full strength. The Panther cubs destroyed them 36-4 as New Zealand looked
BIG NAME RECRUITS
Leeson Ah Mau (St George lllawarra, 2021)
BIG NAME LOSSES
Anthony Gelling (Widnes), Simon Mannering (retired)
2019: BEST POSSIBLE SCENARIO
Everyone stays fit, the standards continue to rise and the Warriors make the top four to stage a real premiership charge.
2019: WORST POSSIBLE SCENARIO
Everything goes back to the way it was and New Zealand slump to another season of missed opportunities.
COACH SAFETY RATING: 8
This was the first time Stephen Kearney finished a season with a winning record and the first time he took a team to the finals. From the outside looking in, he seems to have changed the culture of the place and that's something plenty of other coaches have failed to do.