The NRL season is nearly here! Which means it’s time to start safety testing the seatbelts of that Warriors rollercoaster and working up the mental strength to hang on for dear life for yet another year. And while big-name signings have raised expectations all across Warrior Nation, leading in to Round 1 it’s other areas that hold the most intrigue for me. Barring injury, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will start at fullback, Issac Luke will wear the 9 jersey. But ask ten people what the Warriors’ best centre combination is and you might just get ten different answers.
By my count, not including fresh new faces who may emerge, the Warriors have seven contenders for two centre spots. While you could argue that leaves them with great depth, you could just as easily wonder why there are still so many question marks surrounding a position that has been a weakness for quite some time.
If the final trial is anything to go by, Blake Ayshford and Tui Lolohea have the inside running, with Solomone Kata shifting to the wing. That leaves Konrad Hurrell, Jonathan Wright, David Fusitu’a and Matt Allwood either on the bench or starting the season in the NSW Cup.
It seems certain Tui Lolohea will be in the side somewhere, and with Jeff Robson (dubbed by Jerome Ropati as the ‘most important recruit for 2016’) set to play in the halves and RTS at fullback, it leaves centre or wing as the only options. As the Warriors’ 2015 Rookie of the Year there’s no disputing Lolohea’s talent and readiness for the NRL, but can he adjust to yet another position in the backline, and can his defence can hold up against the increased traffic heading his way?
Coach McFadden’s recent quotes also suggest Blake Ayshford will be given every opportunity to resurrect his NRL career. According to McFadden, ‘Blake’s experience gives him that composed attitude out on the field and that is pretty important.’ But there are doubts surrounding Ayshford too. Most notably ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Seen as a future NSW Origin representative in 2011, Ayshford spent most of 2015 in reserve grade after struggling to find consistent game time during a two-year stint with the Sharks. Is he still good enough to command a starting gig at the NRL level?
Solomone Kata has made it clear that his preference is to play in the centres, and he has every right to wonder why the jumper is not his to lose after starting in all 24 games last season, scoring 12 tries. He’s a quick, powerful ball-runner who is equally as capable at working the ball away from the danger end as he is bowling through defenders on his way to the try line. But, as impressive as Kata was with ball in hand, concerns continue to linger about his defence, particularly against bigger, stronger centres (see Blake Ferguson, Round 19, 2015). He’s only young, but the new signings have accelerated the ‘win-now’ mindset — with external expectations set so high, the margin for error is greatly reduced.
Another player much-maligned for his defence is Konrad Hurrell. The biggest ‘name’ of this bunch, in many peoples’ minds a fit Konrad Hurrell is the obvious choice. His attacking prowess is undisputed. As a ball-runner he strikes genuine fear into the opposition and he can be borderline unstoppable close to the line, as witnessed by his try in the NRL All Stars match. But so often Konrad has been his own worst enemy — ill-discipline, poor preparation, basic errors, defensive lapses and off-field indiscretions. His career so far has been so enigmatic that inserting him in the line-up now seems like a gamble. But, to win big, sometimes you have to take risks. Hurrell’s a match-winner who’s simply too talented to be running around in the NSW Cup. And now that he seems to have his attitude at fitness right, he’d be the first centre on my team sheet. (For a more in-depth discussion about Konrad Hurrell, click here).
So what about the others? Jonathan Wright joined the club, much like Blake Ayshford, to little fanfare. Signed to provide depth to the outside backs and a calm, cool head who plays error-free football at both ends, Wright seems now to be viewed as a ‘defensive specialist’ — there were games last season in which I’d swear he didn’t even touch the ball once the Warriors advanced into the opposition half. And while the fans didn’t particularly warm to Wright’s workmanlike game, he very rarely let the side down and there’s a case to be made that he’d complement a Solomone Kata or Konrad Hurrell quite nicely if he slotted next to them on the wing, switching to centre for the defensive assignments. Unfortunately for Wright, it seems that Ayshford has surpassed him on the ‘calm Australian utility back who can make a tackle’ list.
Our final two contenders look to be the lowest on the totem pole right now, but it wasn’t that long ago that David Fusitu’a was doing this:
and it seemed a new star was born. Personally I’d love to see Fusitu’a shift back to the wing. He’s a great finisher with a stack of speed who could really develop into something special given an extended run.
Matthew Allwood is another interesting case. After arriving from Canberra in mysterious off-field circumstances, he’s had limited opportunities to shine on the big stage. But, in the few games he has played, he hasn’t looked out of place. While he’s probably ranked seventh of all the midfield options at this point, I could easily see him carving out a pretty nice role with the NRL side if he could string a few games together.
So, after all that, all I can really decide is that I’d find a spot for the Hurrellcane. If you put a gun to my head right now, I’d probably go with Hurrell and Lolohea, with Fusitu’a and Manu Vatuvei on the wings, but if you ask me five minutes from now I might just as likely try to convince you of the benefits of nestling Jonathan Wright next to any one of the powerful attack-minded options. Seems harsh on Kata though? Or maybe there’s so much attacking ability across the rest of the side that Ayshford and Wright is the way to go? Or Allwood?
That’s it, there’s only one way to resolve this: YouTube compilation showdown!
Calling all YouTube enthusiasts – looks like there’s an opening for a Matt Allwood (rugby league player) compilation!