Justis Kamu previews the NRL season and the big questions that hover over the Warriors and the competition's contenders in 2013.
1. The questions
Coach: Matthew Elliott
He's not the coach that fans or even players wanted after Brian McClennan's exit, but Elliott at least has NRL experience - that's a good start. He's had time in this jungle before so he will be familiar with the sights and sounds of this exciting competition. The former Raiders and Panthers coach has never had to deal with the pressure of being at the helm of a one-nation club. This will bring far greater responsibilities in his return to the head coach position than being in Penrith or Canberra. With Auckland's sporting scene slowly getting its sexy back. He will have the added pressure of trying to start a winning run from the get-go to ensure that the Warriors aren't just a sideshow but a jostling to be the main event in the big smoke.
Halves pairing: Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai
Johnson will provide the style and Leuluai adds the substance, that's the plan anyway. The halves combination isn't one to get fans enthused but Leuluai brings some simplicity and composure to an intriguing concoction of backline talents. He's not as quick as James Maloney and loses out in a battle between the two on style points. Carlos Tuimavave would be the more exciting option at standoff but the club won't be taking that gamble anytime soon. Johnson and Leuluai need to develop quickly and the Eels who don't look that strong on paper will be the perfect first hit-out for the duo.
Wingers: Glen Fisiiahi, Bill Tupou or Manu Vatuvei
Vatuvei was far from his best last season and looked terrible at times. Tupou made fewer mistakes, but didn't have much spark or unpredictability with the ball in hand. Fisiiahi would walk into every side in the competition if picked on pure talent alone. But his light frame hasn't quite handled the physical demands of the NRL. The Warriors need a duo who can consistently deliver top performances week to week.
Defence: It's a good thing that Reuben Wiki has been let go as defence coach after the side conceded 609 points (third worst in the NRL) last season. Admittedly he can't make any tackles from the coach's box but at times there didn't seem to be a defensive plan at all. Wiki is a legend in the game but his ability to transfer his defensive skills to a coaching capacity was a failed transition.
2. Biggest questions for last year's top eight?
Melbourne Storm: State of Origin
How many games will the Storm drop during the State of Origin? The Victorian side are mindful of player burnout and usually rest the big three (Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater) and other Origin participants during June-August. As a result a weakened Storm side tend to drop a few games affecting team morale and their position on the competition ladder.
Canterbury Bulldogs: Fullback
Ben Barba's absence is a massive hit to take for the Doggies. He was a freak last year scoring 22 tries on his way to the Dally M award. Without him the Bulldogs have named winger Steve Turner at fullback. Barba will be sorely missed.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Halfback
Adam Reynolds was named NRL Rookie of the Year after a stellar first season. The 'second year syndrome' could affect his play now that he won't be an unknown quantity for opposition coaches.
North Queensland Cowboys: Hooker
The Cowboys lost club veteran Aaron Payne and James Segeyaro last season to retirement and transfer respectively. This weekend they will start with Englishman Scott Moore in his debut as a starter with Anthony Mitchell in reserve. If Moore or Mitchell can settle quickly into the hooking role it will do wonders for a side who are genuine title contenders this season.
Cronulla Sharks: Backline depth
The Sharks forward pack is stacked with talent after making notable moves in the player market. However it's in the backline where there are concerns over their playing roster. This weekend starters Jonathan Wright, Matthew Wright and Ricky Leutele all have NRL experience but opponents will be sleeping easy the night before games.
Brisbane Broncos: Leadership
Sam Thaiday has struggled to fill the void left by Darren Lockyer's retirement in 2011. With Petro Civoniceva's also following Lockyer in the off-season it further highlights shortage of leaders in their ranks at a time when the powerhouse club need a strong commander on the field.
Manly Sea Eagles - Forward power
The loss of Tony Williams has to be highlighted purely on the fact that his explosiveness was rare amongst the Manly forwards. Sure, the likes of Glenn Stewart, Brent Kite and Anthony Watmough remain but they can't bend the defensive line back like the ferocious T-Rex. He's a significant loss for the Sea Eagles who won't be looking forward to meeting their old teammate in round five at ANZ Stadium.
Canberra Raiders - Five eighth
The Raiders need a fit Terry Campese back in the green machine if they want to have a serious shot of winning the NRL title. Josh Mcrone is an admirable fill-in for the club captain who is recovering from a second ACL reconstruction. Campese is aiming to return in round six of 2013.
3. Will..........be all Hype or the Real Deal?
Sonny Bill Williams - Real Deal
He's come back to the game that launched his superstar status. He'll have a target on his back in every match that he plays this season but this won't faze him. Betting against SBW to succeed has become a frustrating pastime for many as he's overcome plenty of adversity throughout his portfolio career. Watch him help take the Roosters deep into the finals series.
Penrith Panthers: Hype
The 2012 wooden spooners went into recruitment overdrive last season acquiring eight players for their squad in 2013. The forward pack has been remodelled with Sika Manu and Lewis Brown added to the likes of Tim Grant and Sam McKendry. However the halves pairing of Luke Walsh and Laclan Coote aren't to change their fortunes over 26 rounds. Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings's departure will cut the side deeply.
NZ Warriors: Real Deal
There hasn't really been any Warriors mania surrounding this year's outfit. After last year's overestimated expectations, the club have resorted back to playing the humble card which has always suited the Penrose based side. A number of players recognise they under-performed last season and will be looking to make amends. A top eight spot is well within reach from there anything is possible in September footy.
Parramatta Eels: Hype
The passionate Ricky Stuart takes his coaching skills to 'Parra' after being in the NSW hot seat for the past two years. If Eels fans thought this was a year of change think again. The Hayne Plane hasn't taken off in two years, Fuifui Moimoi plays just 35 minutes per week and Chris Sandow needs an experienced halves partner to help him steer the side. Their backs for this week's Warriors clash are the weakest set in the competition.
4. Kiwis that need to bounce-back in 2013
Last year the Tigers bombed out before the finals and the world champion Kiwis couldn't manage a win over the Kangaroos in two games. At times Marshall looked ordinary in both jerseys with his inconsistent form contributing to his dumping as NZ captain last week. Although his team struggled, he did topped the competition in try assists last season with 37 to his name.
Manu had a year to forget in 2012 with numerous blunders contaminating his game. Still on his day he is one of the most feared wingers in the world and close to the tryline he is near unstoppable.
The West Tigers paid him like a prince last season but his performances were more of a pauper. Blair looked a shadow of the standout player that he was at the Storm. He needs to rebound to form this year or face being bounced by Tigers faithful and from the Kiwis World Cup squad.
Kenny-Dowall's name went up in lights after his season in 2010 when he played a significant role in the Roosters Grand Final run. He needs to find his swagger again in 2013 if he's going to be taken seriously as a top centre in the competition.
5. Picks for Round One
Sydney Roosters v South Sydney Rabbitohs: Rabbitohs by 4 points
Brisbane Broncos v Manly Sea Eagles: Sea Eagles by 8 points
Parramatta Eels v NZ Warriors: Warriors by 10 points
Canterbury Bulldogs v North Queensland Cowboys: Cowboys by 8 points
Penrith Panthers v Canberra Raiders: Raiders by 12 points
Melbourne Storm v St George Illawarra Dragons: Storm by 16 points
Cronulla Sharks v Gold Coast Titans: Sharks by 8 points
Newcastle Knights v Wests Tigers: Tigers by 6 points
6. Projected finish after 26 rounds
1. South Sydney Rabbitohs
2. Manly Sea Eagles
3. Melbourne Storm
4. Sydney Roosters
5. North Queensland Cowboys
6. Canterbury Bulldogs
7. NZ Warriors
8. Brisbane Broncos
9. Wests Tigers
10. Newcastle Knights
11. Canberra Raiders
12. St George Illawarra Dragons
13. Cronulla Sharks
14. Gold Coast Titans
16. Parramatta Eels
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