NRL Warriors add steel to panache

Full to the brim with attacking brilliance, the Warriors are unlikely to need any help racking up points this NRL season.

But for September-October rugby league to become a reality, the Auckland-based side will need to pair their offensive flair with a new attribute – grit.

The Warriors leaked more than four tries a game on average in 2016 as they spurned a promising late-season table position to finish 10th.

It was one collapse too many for chief executive Jim Doyle, who acted swiftly to demote Andrew McFadden and bring in ex-Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney.

A World Cup and Four Nations winner, Kearney has been tasked with delivering a first finals appearance in six years for the club.

But first thing’s first – fortifying the side’s creaky rear-guard.

“There was an obvious gap there that I think we needed to address, so for me that’s been the priority over the pre-season,” Kearney told AAP.

“We had about 25 points scored against us on average each game and, in this competition, that’s not good enough.”

Despite winless showings last week’s Auckland Nines and their first trial against Melbourne, plenty of signs point towards an improved Warriors in 2017.

Star fullback and newly-minted captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has recovered from an ACL tear, while halfback Shaun Johnson has overcome last year’s niggles.

Young players including Solomone Kata, David Fusitu’a and livewire Tuimoala Lolohea have also returned a year older and wiser.

But it’s the impending capture of premiership-winning playmaker Kieran Foran that really has tongues wagging in the City of Sails.

In what was otherwise a modest 2017 recruitment drive, Foran’s signature will complete an all-Test spine alongside Tuivasa-Sheck, Johnson and Issac Luke.

The 26-year-old Foran joined on a one-year contract in September but is yet to receive the green light from the NRL, who want further assurances on his mental health.

He’s back in full-contact training in Auckland, having almost completely recovered from a shoulder injury suffered at Parramatta.

Kearney said the NRL’s tick of approval was imminent.

“I’m picking before round one, (so) he’ll be an asset,” Kearney said.

On a personal level, the former Warriors back-rower takes up his second NRL gig having enjoyed a club coaching apprenticeship money can’t buy.

A brief and unsuccessful stint at the Eels was bookended by five years under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne and four years with Wayne Bennett in Brisbane.

Kearney said the two super-coaches, who have eight premierships between them, had their individual styles but emphasised one thing in particular.

“It’s really important for me to make sure that I’m me, and that’s something both coaches taught me early,” Kearney said.

“You’ve got to do it your way and your style.”

WARRIORS:

PREMIERSHIPS: Nil

FINISHES OVER THE PAST THREE SEASONS: 2016 – 10th, 2015 – 13th, 2014 – 9th

COACH: Stephen Kearney

CAPTAIN: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

GAINS: Kieran Foran (free agent, pending)

LOSSES: Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Jonathan Wright (Manly), Ben Henry (retirement), Ali Lauitiiti (retirement), Sione Lousi (released), John Palavi (released), Henare Wells (released)

STRENGTHS: An all-Kiwis spine of Tuivasa-Sheck, Foran, Johnson and Luke that, if fully fit, is among the most potent in the 2017 NRL.

WEAKNESSES: Conceded the third-most tries in the NRL last year, something Kearney will have to rectify to secure 2017 finals football.

BEST TEAM: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c), Tuimoala Lolohea, David Fusitu’a, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson, Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Albert Vete, Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman, Simon Mannering.

INTERCHANGE: Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Ben Matulino, Blake Ayshford.

PREDICTED FINISH: 14th

BETTING: $13

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