Michael Burgess has reported on the Warriors since 2006, and dreams of seeing the club in another NRL grand final.
Warriors fans are well accustomed to new beginnings. It has become an unfortunate mantra of the Auckland club, on the constant search for that sustained, long term success which has proved so hard to find. But in terms of change and evolution, 2021 is on another level entirely.
It might yet pay off – but it’s certainly the biggest gamble the club has taken in years.
There’s a new coach in Nathan Brown, who is experienced but unproven, a combination, unfortunately, not unfamiliar to Warriors diehards. Two long serving assistant coaches have been moved on, while omnipresent Australian league identity Phil Gould has been hired as a consultant.
Arguably the biggest area of flux has been the player roster, with the largest turnover in almost a decade. Ten contracted men from the 2020 squad are gone (including two retirements), along with four loan players. No other NRL club has had more out the exit door, and another eight or nine are playing for their futures this season.
Many of those leaving were squad players, but the likes of Patrick Herbert and Lachlan Burr made important contributions while the reluctance to pursue Jack Hetherington, who was superb in 2020 and seemed to tick every box (young, committed, powerful and hungry), is a mystery.
An impressive culture was built last season, in trying circumstances, and one of the biggest challenges for Brown will be replicating that with so many new faces.
On the positive side, there are couple of major signings. The most important is Addin Fonua-Blake, expected to transform the club’s forward pack. It’s been obvious for years that the Warriors have needed a dominant prop and it’s a prerequisite for NRL success (look at the Storm, Roosters and Raiders). But the club have splashed the cash in other areas for marquee men (the most bizarre was the signing of English fullback Sam Tomkins), leaving their middle forwards as a constant Achilles heel.
Fonua-Blake needs to change that. The 25-year-old is a proverbial wrecking ball – at 1.89m and 118 kilos – and should be coming into his prime. There are questions about his off-field discipline but being away from the Sydney fish bowl and in a different dressing room environment will be beneficial.
Hulking compatriot Ben Murdoch-Masila is the other notable recruit. The 30-year-old has impressed for Tonga with his tackle busting charges, but can he adjust to the demands of the NRL, after being based in England since 2016?
None of the other arrivals are game changers, though centre Euan Aitken adds backline experience and Kane Evans will be a handy interchange option. Of greater importance is the continued development of halves Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris- Tavita while second rower Eli Katoa needs to build on a remarkable rookie season.
Captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will want to finish on a high before his switch to rugby. His departure is a massive blow, but the 27-year-old has become increasingly disenchanted with the lack of success at Mt Smart. He has given great service since his arrival in 2016, but the club hasn’t delivered on their promises to create a dynasty, not helped by chapters of off-field chaos, which has made his exit no surprise to insiders.
2020 player of the year, Tohu Harris, would be a logical successor as skipper, but his future is far from assured. It will be a battle to convince Harris to extend his current deal beyond next year, especially if they miss the playoffs again.
It’s another reason why the Brown experiment has to work because the alternative doesn’t bear contemplating. He needs to build on the foundation created by Todd Payten last season and provide the right balance between structure and flair, which is never easy for Australian coaches. The first month will provide a good litmus test, facing the resurgent Titans, Knights, Raiders and Roosters.