Rugby league: How the New Zealand Warriors’ new signings could impact the team in the 2021 NRL season
The Warriors have been active in the NRL player market this off-season, making a number of signings to bolster their squad. Christopher Reive looks at how they’re likely to impact the team.
8. Sean O’Sullivan – half
Barring injury, it’s unlikely we see much of O’Sullivan in the 2021 season. Heading into the campaign, O’Sullivan looks set to fight for a spot on the bench opened up by a season-ending injury to hooker Karl Lawton.
The young half, and son of Warriors recruitment boss Peter O’Sullivan, will serve as a safety net behind Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tavita alongside Paul Turner and Hayze Perham, who have both shown an ability to front in other positions at the top level as well.
O’Sullivan has made nine NRL appearances across three seasons, debuting for the Sydney Roosters in 2018, before joining the Brisbane Broncos in 2019 and 2020.
7. Junior Ratuva- wing
Just how soon Ratuva will get his chance at first grade could depend on how new coach Nathan Brown decides to use David Fusitu’a, who started 2020 in the centres. If Brown takes the same route, Ratuva has to be in the conversation to take over the spot on the wing.
Ratuva arrived in New Zealand from Cuvu College in Fiji to play rugby union for the King’s College First XV, where he excelled at lock or flanker. His switch to league immediately resulted in him being groomed as a winger. At 196cm and 110kg, Ratuva has the size to cause some trouble on the edges and has the athletic gifts to add to the package.
The young Fijian might be a wait-and-see project for the Warriors in 2021, but there’s a lot to like about his upside.
6. Marcelo Montoya – wing/centre
Like O’Sullivan, Montoya may not get a lot of game time for the Warriors in 2021, injury permitting. However, what he does bring to the team is a wealth of experience and the talent to push the first-choice backline.
Brown has stressed the importance of squad depth, and a player like Montoya provides exactly that; someone who will test his teammates at training while being more than capable of earning a spot in the centres or on the wing in the match-day squad, or providing injury cover.
Still just 24 years old, Montoya has featured in more than 50 NRL matches, all for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, and scored 19 tries.
5. Bayley Sironen – second row
Sironen is yet to really find himself with an opportunity to make his mark on the game. It’s hard to say with any sort of confidence that things will be different for him with the Warriors, but he does bring plenty to the table.
After playing just five times between the 2017 (Wests Tigers) and 2019 (South Sydney Rabbitohs) seasons, Sironen had 19 appearances for the Rabbitohs in 2020 spread between the second row, centre and a bench role.
His best asset is his ability with ball in hand. A good ball-runner, he has also shown glimpses of an offloading skillset, though more often takes the safer option of going to ground with the ball.
Like Montoya, Sironen may not play the biggest role in the match-day squad, but his presence in the group helps to bolster the depth and will push his teammates to fight harder for their spots in the 17.
4. Ben Murdoch-Masila – utility forward
Murdoch-Masila’s potential and talent have always been clear. The East Auckland-product made a name for himself with the Wests Tigers in the early 2010s, with then-coach referring to him as a “strike weapon”.
Since 2016, the 29-year-old has been playing in the English Super League, where he scored 42 tries in 128 games, spread between the Salford Red Devils and Warrington Wolves.
He was a star in the Super League, but will that translate in his return to the NRL? It’s a big ask to expect a similar level of production in a stronger competition, particularly when he’s coming into a squad where he will have to fight for every minute of playing time.
Murdoch-Masila’s best trait could be his ability to play at prop, second row or lock. That versatility could see him be useful piece for the Kiwi side.
3. Kane Evans – prop
The Warriors have loaded up in the front row in the off-season in what seems to be a reaction to not only the way the game is played these days, but also to their woes of last season when they had to bring in loan players.
Evans fits the mould in that enforcer role; someone who will provide a punch in your line and some damaging tackles. He was effective in a bench role for the Parramatta Eels last season, scoring four tries, running for an average of 94m per game and averaging about 20 tackles in less than 30 minutes per game.
In what turned out to be something of a straight swap with the Eels, who went on to sign former Warriors forward Isaiah Papali’i, Evans shapes up as a key component of the Warriors forward pack and will provide plenty in the way of physicality, energy and go-forward.
2. Addin Fonua-Blake – prop
Fonua-Blake has emerged as one of the best powerhouse props in the NRL over the last couple of years in his time with the Manly Sea Eagles.
At 189cm and 118kg, the Tongan enforcer’s game is the ideal one for a prop in the current climate of high-tempo game play. With an emphasis on the importance of strong and mobile forwards, Fonua-Blake is the prototype for what a team could want in a front-rower.
In 2020, he averaged 167m and almost 30 tackles in 51 minutes per game, and missed just nine of his 393 attempted tackles.
There is plenty of upside with the signing of Fonua-Blake, who adds to what is now a very formidable Warriors pack, however, he has had his issues with discipline throughout his career – both on and off the pitch. Most recently, he was handed a hefty fine during the 2020 season for a verbal tirade on a referee.
With that in mind, there’s an element of risk to the signing, but one worth taking for what he is capable of.
1. Euan Aitken – centre
Former interim head coach Todd Payten noted late in the 2020 season that the Warriors needed a strike centre, so it makes sense that they went out and got Aitken.
In 17 appearances for the St George Illawarra Dragons in 2020, Aitken was the NRL’s leading specialist centre for metres gained (2561, an average of 151 metres a game) and post-contact metres (1057), while he ranked behind only Roosters and Kiwis star Joseph Manu as the centre with the most tackle breaks (64).
Aitken runs with strength and intent, and his ability to get through the line will no doubt create several chances for the Warriors, while he’s a terrific tackler, making more than 90 per cent of his attempted tackles in 2020.
After seeming to have fallen out of favour a number of times in a six-year stint with the Dragons, the 25-year-old joins the Warriors on the back of his best year for some time with the opportunity to make an immediate impact. He could prove to be one of the buys of the season.
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