Easy Draw?

Despite stuff.co.nz reporting that the Warriors have a tough start to NRL season (http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/league/64169618/new-zealand-warriors-handed-tough-start-to-2015-nrl-season), most other pundits have labelled the draw as one of the easiest and I tend to agree.

Out of the 26 rounds, the Warriors play the Rabbitohs (A), Sea Eagles (H), Panthers (A), Bulldogs (A), Broncos (H) and Dragons (H) only once — that’s four out of the top five favourites on the TAB, plus the Sea Eagles and Dragons, the two teams that historically have been the most difficult opponents for the men from Mt Smart.

The boys also take on the Roosters at home in the week leading up to Origin, and the Knights (H), Titans (A) and Storm (H) in the weeks following Origin matches, so there is every chance all those teams will be weakened for those fixtures. And finally, all 11 Auckland-based home games will be at Mt Smart, an indication that, thus far, the Eden Park experiment has failed both on and off the field.

We do have that horror trip to Perth to play the Rabbits again this year, another trip to Townsville, start the year with a couple of away games and finish with three out of four away games, but it would be hard to argue that the Warriors haven’t done well out of this draw.

Could 2015 be the year of the Warrior? My heart says we’re good for a top 4 spot, but the head is a little more measured, suggesting a playoff spot would be a step forward after three seasons outside the top 8.

Let’s break this down a little further

Last year the Broncos pipped the Warriors for the top 8 on for/against with 28 competition points, but to be safe you probably need 30 points to guarantee a playoff spot. For those with loftier ambitions, such as the NRL Warrior, the teams from positions one to four finished on either 36 or 34 points.

So how do we get there?

When thinking long-term, I like to break the season down into shorter sequences. This competition is so even that every team has their ups and downs, and you need to make the most of when you hit top form. Below are my thoughts about what the Warriors need to do to secure a top 4 spot, or at worst, a playoff position. Check back throughout the year and let me know how my predictions are looking!

 Rounds 1–4 — time to start strong

The Warriors start the season with:

  • Knights (away)
  • Raiders (away)
  • Eels (home)
  • Broncos (home)

Even though the men from Mt Smart have started the past few seasons by hitting the snooze button, that needs to change in 2015. Three out of the first four teams they play finished below them on the table last year, and Brisbane only finished one spot higher. With much tougher fixtures to come later in the season, the Warriors need to leap out of bed to start this season. The Knights are a dangerous side, especially at home, but their inconsistency makes this a real 50/50 game. The Warriors put 50 points on the Raiders both home and away in 2014, and with tackling machine Shaun Fensom set to miss the start of the season, I expect nothing different this year. The Eels have signed the niggly Anthony Watmough but have lost Jarryd Hayne, the man who inspired many of their victories last year. The Brisbane game will come with a lot of hype, as the franchise commemorates 20 years, no doubt with fireworks and plenty of nostalgia. I’d expect it to be one of the best crowds of the year at Mt Smart, and hopefully that extra support can secure the W.

Prediction (top 4): 3 wins from 4 games, including a couple of big margins, and the Warriors sit near the top of the table in the early stages. Total = 6 points

Prediction (top 8): 2 wins from 4. A sluggish performance against the Knights in the opener is followed by wins against the Canberra turnstiles and the Eels, but the atmosphere is all too much against the Broncos and we lose an error-ridden match. Total = 4 points

What to watch for: Chris Sandow pointing to the crowd

Rounds 5–7 — time to send a message

  • Storm (away)
  • West Tigers (home)
  • Cowboys (away)

Rounds 5 to 7 are a real chance for the Warriors to send a message to the rest of the NRL. The Storm are a side on the way down as the likes of Billy Slater and Cameron Smith age, and while they boast a raft of talented youngsters, there’s no reason why Ryan Hoffman shouldn’t enjoy his first trip back to AAMI in a Warriors jersey. The Tigers are a young side on the way up again, but at home this is one we should be targeting. Any trip to Townsville is always tough, especially so when a man named Thurston is in the opposition. The rampaging Jason Taumalolo will be a handful too.

Prediction (top 4): 2 wins from 3. Wins against the Storm and Tigers have us flying high, but we wilt in the Townsville heat. 4 points. Total = 10

Prediction (top 8): 1 win from 3 drops the men from Mt Smart outside the top 8 and the doubters start to linger. 2 points. Total = 6

What to watch for: Last minute heroics against the Storm

Rounds 8–11 — moving time

  • Titans (home)
  • Sharks (away)
  • Eels (away)
  • BYE

Regardless of how the season has gone to this point, the Warriors should be targeting this run of games leading into the bye as a serious opportunity to collect some Ws. First up are the Titans in Penrose on Anzac Day, the first of five games in a 10-hour NRL bonanza to commemorate 100 years since the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli. An away trip to the Shire follows, and this game shouldn’t be underestimated. Remember this was the game that put the final nail in Matthew Elliott’s coffin in 2014. Cronulla has recruited well, with Michael Ennis and our old friend Jason Bukuya joining Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Andrew Fifita in an experienced and hard-nosed forward pack, while new boys Ben Barba and Gerard Beale will look to link with the crafty Michael Gordon in the backline. We’ve already spoken about the Eels, but leading into the bye, this is another game there for the taking.

Prediction (top 4): 2 wins from 3. Cronulla’s forward pack proves too strong, with both Fifita and Gallen running for over 200 metres, but we take care of the other games to sit comfortably in the top 4. 6 points. Total = 16

Prediction (top 8): 2 wins from 3. See above — the Warriors sit among a logjam of teams around the middle of the ladder after the bye. 6 points. Total = 12

What to watch for: Unless they are suspended by then, this run of games sees the men from Mt Smart face two of the bigger grubs in the game, Greg Bird and Michael Ennis. Keep a very, very close eye on them both and shout loudly so the referee doesn’t miss anything. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVHNqTjCwXo

Rounds 12–17 — time to hit the front

  • Knights (home)
  • Rabbitohs (away)
  • Roosters (home)
  • Titans (away)
  • Raiders (home)
  • BYE

This run of games coincides with the start of the Origin series and, with tougher times ahead, is when the Mt Smart men need to make their way to the upper end of the table. Both Ryan Hoffman and Jacob Lillyman could be involved in Origin, but barring other injuries, we should be well stocked in the forwards. Apart from the difficult trip to Perth to face the Rabbits, the other 4 games are very winnable, with the Roosters likely to be depleted in the week leading up to Origin and a few key players from the Knights and the Titans possibly a little battered and bruised. If we aren’t at least in the top 4 after that second bye, it could be another lean year in Penrose.

Prediction (top 4): 4 wins from 5. This looks like the easiest run of games throughout the season. 10 points. Total = 26

Prediction (top 8): 4 wins from 5. See above. 10 points. Total = 22

What to watch for: Konrad Hurrell bulldozing Rabbits

Rounds 18–20 — it starts to get tougher

  • Storm (home)
  • Roosters (away)
  • Sea Eagles (home)

Hopefully by this point, we’re riding high after a successful run of games, but we may well need some buffer room from the chasing pack. The Storm don’t always bring their Origin stars to Mt Smart in the week following Origin, so that could make things easier, but there’s no doubt that on paper these three games look like the toughest challenge of the season thus far. Both the Roosters and Sea Eagles will be trying to peak for the run in to the finals so this should give the Warriors a good gauge on their title chances.

Prediction (top 4): 1 win from 3. The two points against the Storm will have many people checking out flights to the Grand Final, but after back-to-back losses those same people are checking the fine print for refund details. 2 points. Total = 28

Prediction (top 8): 0 wins from 3. It wouldn’t be a Warriors season without a rollercoaster ride and this is the first big drop. 0 points. Total = 22

What to watch for: Kieran Foran’s welcome at Mt Smart. Pay particular attention if you see him chatting to Eric Watson — will Foran be a Warrior in 2016?

Rounds 21 and 22 — time to bounce back

  • Sharks (home)
  • Dragons (home)

Both these games are must-wins. As previously mentioned, the Sharks are likely to improve from a dismal 2014 campaign, and Warriors fans have very few happy memories of games against the Dragons (only 4 wins from 22 games since the merger in 1999!), but with a potentially very tough finish to the season, these two games may be the last opportunity to collect back-to-back wins.

Prediction (top 4): 2 wins from 2. Two cold August days at Mt Smart produce another 2 Ws. 4 points. Total = 32

Prediction (top 8): 2 wins from 2. The importance of these games in the context of the season and the loyal Mt Smart faithful get the boys over the line. 4 points. Total = 26

What to watch for: A Shaun Johnson special

Rounds 23–26 — time to hang on

  • Panthers (away)
  • Cowboys (home)
  • Tigers (away)
  • Bulldogs (away)

Three out of four away games to finish the season is enough to make all Warriors fans very nervous. The men from Mt Smart have failed to deliver in the big moments over the past few seasons and they’ll need to be on top form to make sure they finish the season on a high. Penrith showed last year that they are a young team on the rise, and in 2015 they’ll be looking to prove that they are ready to win now. Awkward games against the Cowboys and Tigers follow, before the Warriors get their first look at 2014 grand finalists, the Bulldogs, to finish the season.

Prediction (top 4): 2 wins from 4. Wins against the Cowboys and the Tigers provide an opportunity to bring the Minor Premiership back to Penrose, but a narrow loss has the Warriors watching other results decide their final position on the ladder. 4 points. Total = 36. Third place.

Prediction (top 8): 1 win from 4 and a month of looking over our shoulder at the oncoming pack. 2 points. Total = 28. Eighth spot on points differential.

What to watch for: How the men from Mt Smart shape up in the lead-up to the finals. Regardless of how the rest of the season goes, you want to be hitting the playoffs at the top of your game. If the Warriors want to make it all the way to the big dance, they’ll need to prove they can win away from home against the toughest opposition and this run of games gives them the perfect opportunity to do so.

My heart says this draw gives the Warriors a great opportunity to contend for their first title in 2015 — but what do you think? Do I have every reason to be optimistic? Or am I set for another year of disappointment?

For a round-by-round list of the Warriors 2015 draw, click here http://www.warriors.co.nz/draw-results/nrl.html

Or for the full 2015 NRL fixture list, click here http://www.nrl.com/DrawResults/TelstraPremiership/Draw/tabid/11180/Default.aspx

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