Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: No Luck and now Warriors without Friend

Elijah Taylor.  Photo / Getty Images
Elijah Taylor. Photo / Getty Images

Of all the players the Warriors would not want to lose at this stage of pre-season, Nathan Friend would be near the top of the list.

The Warriors hooker belonged in the 'almost indispensable' category last year (alongside men such as Simon Mannering and Micheal Luck). In a difficult season, the team won just two games without him on the field in 2012.

It wasn't just his ability to play 80 minutes and make a mountain of tackles; Friend brings hardness, grit and a will to win that others at the club are still developing. Apart from his courageous performance against Brisbane last year, where he played on with a broken jaw, his attitude was encapsulated during the forgettable 52-12 loss to the Cowboys in Townsville.

With the team already down 20-0 midway through the first half after an appalling start, Friend produced a rare kick from dummy half, led the chase (virtually solo) and trapped the Cowboys defender in his own in goal to force a drop out. It was a rare reprieve but showed spirit when others looked like they'd thrown in the towel.

"We'd obviously prefer Nathan to be available from game one," says Warriors coach Matt Elliott. "He brings a lot of tenacity, fitness and leadership to us but there is not a lot we can do about it."

Friend's is an unusual condition, likely to keep him off the paddock until April. His shoulder is structurally sound but a nerve problem means the deltoid muscles don't work properly, affecting his ability to tackle and withstand contact.

It is rare. Former Warrior Wairangi Koopu is one of the few recent examples and Friend's operation will require two specialist surgeons.

It is set down for February 14, though the club is trying to accelerate the process.

"Matt [Elliott] and [CEO] Wayne Scurrah are looking into overseas options," says Friend, "and hopefully we can work something out. If I was in Australia, it could be done tomorrow but there is more of a process here with ACC, etc. I don't really want to lose any more time, as that eats more into the season."

Elijah Taylor has emerged as a strong contender to replace Friend in the No 9 jersey despite having played only a handful of minutes there at NRL level. The 23-year-old, who also had a taste of dummy half during the end-of-year test in Townsville, is highly rated but faces tough competition in the back row, accentuated by the arrival of Todd Lowrie and Ben Henry's shift to the pack.

"He's a genuine contender," says Elliott. "I think Elijah is in our best 13, so we have to find a way for him to be out there."

Taylor is one of the fittest in the club and will go close to matching Friend's defensive qualities and prodigious work rate. He recorded 908 tackles last season; no other Warrior managed more than 750. However, his relative inexperience in the position, the busiest on the field, has shown in the past, with the lack of crispness in his passing, and he is not as quick as many NRL hookers.

Thomas Leuluai is a logical option to step further forward (given he spent much of his time at Wigan in the pack) but it probably won't happen. The Warriors say he has been outstanding in pre-season so far and is seen as a crucial element in the halves, allowing Shaun Johnson more of a free-ranging role.

Alehana Mara is another contender, having played in place of Friend on several occasions last season. He offers energy, unpredictability and pace out of dummy half and has steadily developed the organisational and defensive side of his game.

Siliva Havili has impressed many but seems a development option at this stage.

Meanwhile, despite the current flood of quality halves coming off contract at the end of this season, the Warriors say they are not actively pursuing any targets at this stage.

To snare a high profile name - such as Jonathan Thurston or Jamie Lyon - would mean that knocking on agents' doors would need to start now but Elliott says the current focus is on retention.

"We have some of our best talent at the club - like Feleti [Mateo] and Elijah [Taylor] - that we want to tie up for the future and that is our priority at the moment," says Elliott.

"Also, there is always more than meets the eye with signing a big name. Jonathan Thurston would look great in a Warriors jersey but is Jonathan Thurston's brand more valuable in Australia or in New Zealand? We have to be realistic about that.

"Having said that, Wayne [Scurrah], Dean [Bell] and myself are going through the process of asking all the questions around recruitment now; you have to - that is the landscape we are in.

"However, I am pretty satisfied with what we have got right now. I'm committed to giving the current squad the chance to make the difference."

It is also unlikely that the 2013 squad will be bolstered further in the next few months, despite statements around splashing the cash at the time of Elliott's appointment.

There was a thought that the club may pick up a player or two who had been squeezed out of other clubs by salary cap pressure but the recent cap increase makes this less likely.

- Herald on Sunday

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