New Zealand league fans are still recovering from a disastrous season where the underperforming Kiwis rub salt into wounds inflicted throughout yet another Warriors' campaign of broken dreams.

Many poor souls will be reading this while lying in the fetal position and, understandably, are still too fragile to even begin thinking ahead to this season and the fresh anguish and heartache it might bring.

With your own health and sanity in mind, I've saved you the anxiety and stress and taken it upon myself to dust off the crystal ball and gaze ahead to what we can look forward to, or otherwise, in 2018.

Warriors — the only way is up

The Warriors look set to enter the season with the potential sale of the club unresolved and it's likely that process will resume at the end of the season unless owner Eric Watson can find a buyer early this year.


Coach Stephen Kearney will be under pressure to get results from the get-go after his first season in charge ended with nine straight defeats to see the Warriors crash out of finals contention to finish 13th.

Another slow start will see him quickly come under fire once more and his future at the club will surely be under threat if they fail to make the playoffs for a seventh straight season.

The arrival of veteran NRL coach and Kiwis World Cup adviser Brian Smith to fill the new general manager of football role should allow Kearney to focus on the day-to-day business of coaching.

It will be interesting to see what impact Smith has in streamlining and improving the club's coaching, development and recruitment, and whether his influence will extend to the side's playing style.

As to how the Warriors will shape up on the field, the club has recruited well to beef up their forward pack and bolster their backline stocks with some big-name additions improving their depth and experience.

The signing of Kiwis captain Adam Blair to a rich three-year contract has been criticised but the 31-year-old's leadership and renown training ethic is expected to pay dividends in mentoring the club's young forwards on and off the park.

Blair played in the front row at the Brisbane Broncos last season but switched to lock with the Kiwis. Kearney may also use him in the No13 role and move Simon Mannering out to the edges along with Melbourne premiership winning back rower Tohu Harris.

The Warriors will miss the presence of former prop Ben Matulino, although new middle forward pair Leivaha Pulu and Agnatius Paasi will add plenty of grunt along with the likes of Sam Lisone and Albert Vete.

Veteran hooker Issac Luke will be desperate to prove his critics wrong after an underwhelming 2017 but big things are again expected from impressive rival Nathaniel Roache.

Blake Green will be expected to steer the Warriors around the park and ease the pressure on Shaun Johnson. Photo /
Blake Green will be expected to steer the Warriors around the park and ease the pressure on Shaun Johnson. Photo /

In the backs, Blake Green's signing is another positive, although the heat will be on the former Manly five-eighth to justify his hefty three-year deal by maintaining the impressive form he produced alongside Sea Eagles halfback Daly Cherry-Evans.

Green's arrival has raised questions about the future of young playmaker Ata Hingano, but the 20-year-old Tongan international is sure to play an important role as a back-up half.

The 31-year-old veteran will steer the team around the park to help ease the pressure on star halfback Shaun Johnson and allow the Kiwis No7 to focus on returning to his running best.

The return of former Junior Warriors star Peta Hiku will bring class to the outside backs and although fellow new recruit Gerard Beale will begin the year rehabbing from a broken leg, the club now have plenty of options out wide, ensuring healthy competition for spots.

Hopes are always high going into every Warriors campaign but the disappointment of recent years has lowered expectations ahead of this season.

They are no certainties to break their finals drought but fans will be pleased just to see an upward trend in their team's performances and hope they can stay in the fight longer in 2018.

Kiwis — where to from here?

The fallout of the Kiwis World Cup failure is expected to be resolved by February at the earliest, on completion of the Raelene Castle and Tim Castle-led independent review.

The findings of that wide-ranging investigation will determine whether besieged coach David Kidwell remains in the job and there could also be ramifications for the New Zealand Rugby League's upper management.

Something has to change in the wake of New Zealand's defeats to second-tier teams Tonga and Fiji to crash out of the quarter-finals, and intrigue surrounds Kidwell's future and who the NZRL might appoint as his successor if he is shown the door.

Kidwell has copped plenty of criticism for the side's shortcomings on the field and despite doing much to improve the team's culture off the park, it is difficult to see him avoiding the axe, as his record of three wins from 10 tests is unacceptable.

However, the Herald on Sunday understands Kidwell still enjoys the support of some players and he may have a case to stay on as an assistant coach if he is pushed out of the hot seat.

However, any appointments of wider team staff will likely hinge on whoever is put in charge of the team, and it's also understood the players were impressed by the ideas and defensive knowledge provided by assistant coach Ben Gardiner.

Whether the four former Kiwis internationals who defected to Tonga - Jason Taumalolo, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Manu Ma'u and David Fusitu'a - decide to stay with the Pacific Island team or seek to realign themselves with New Zealand will be a major talking point and storyline in the lead-up to the mid-season tests scheduled for the stand-alone State of Origin weekend in June.

Whether Kiwis selectors are open to the quartet returning will also be fascinating but considering the success Tonga enjoyed in defying expectations to reach the World Cup semifinals and the impact they had on their fans and community in New Zealand and back in the islands, it is difficult to see them abandoning the Kristian Woolf-coached side.

The Herald on Sunday spoke to Woolf before Christmas and although unable to confirm the players' intentions, he remained convinced the group had no regrets with their decision.

"What I do know is they were extremely happy with the choice they made," said Woolf. "They're overwhelmed with the impact they've been able to have.

"I've said before that I've never seen a group of men unite so many people, and they're extremely happy with the choice they've made and what they've been able to achieve together.

"I've spoken to all those guys and they'll all tell you it was the best thing they've been involved with in terms of rugby league."

Unfortunately, it is unlikely Tonga and the Kiwis will go head-to-head again next season and it could be 2019 before a rematch is arranged.

The Kiwis' test calendar is still to be finalised, with a mid-season clash against England in the United States a possibility, although doubts hang over whether NRL clubs will allow players to embark on a long-haul trip, so the NZRL has sounded out Fiji about arranging a back-up fixture.

The Herald on Sunday understands the Kiwis will host Australia for the first time since the 2014 Four Nations final in Wellington in a yet-to-be announced end-of-season test before their three-game series against England in the United Kingdom.

Fans can only hope that by then, the NZRL and Kiwis have their house in order and, much like the Warriors, hope they can achieve better results in 2018.

Warriors roster

2018 gains:

Gerard Beale (Cronulla Sharks), Adam Blair (Brisbane Broncos), Tohu Harris (Melbourne Storm), Peta Hiku (Warrington), Matiu Love-Henry (Brisbane Broncos), Leivaha Pulu (Gold Coast Titans), Agnatius Paasi (Gold Coast Titans), Blake Green (Manly Sea Eagles)

2018 losses: Bureta Faraimo (Hull FC), Kieran Foran (Canterbury Bulldogs), Charlie Gubb (Canberra Raiders), Ryan Hoffman (Melbourne Storm), Jacob Lillyman (Newcastle Knights), Ben Matulino (Wests Tigers), Ofahiki Ogden (Canterbury Bulldogs), Toafofoa Sipley (Manly Sea Eagles), Bodene Thompson (Leigh), Matthew Allwood (Wynnum Manly)

Re-signed: Blake Ayshford (2019), James Gavet (2019), Ata Hingano (2020), Shaun Johnson (2019), Mason Lino (2019), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (2019), Nathaniel Roache (2018), Ligi Sao (2019), Patrick Sipley (2018), Lewis Soosemea (2019), Joe Vuna (2019), Albert Vete (2019)