This will be the Warriors’ 20th season — and they are still waiting for the grand prize, the NRL Premiership title. Michael Burgess assesses the outlook for this banner season after recent disappointments

Optimism rules

There is a sense of hope around the Warriors as the team enters its 20th season. The playing roster is strong and the signings of Sam Tomkins and Jayson Bukuya add to the optimism. There is a core of young players who have moved beyond rookie status; they have gained solid NRL experience and there is a mix of pace and power through the team.

Jayson Bukuya is one of the new signings coach Matt Elliott hopes will improve the club's fortunes this year. Photo / Getty Images
Jayson Bukuya is one of the new signings coach Matt Elliott hopes will improve the club's fortunes this year. Photo / Getty Images

The club is also commercially stable, having survived the off-field dramas of 1999-2000 and 2004-05, and the disappointing performances of 2012.

There are still questions around the mental approach, both of individuals and collectively, but the club believe progress has been made in that area.


Positive selection dilemmas

Warriors coach Matt Elliott will have genuine options across many positions next year, giving him the depth and internal competition he has craved since arriving at Mt Smart. In addition to the new signings, Ben Henry and the Lousi brothers return from long-term injuries, while other rookies will push their case.

The Tomkins factor

Forget the talk about Tomkins playing in the halves next season - he will almost certainly be used at fullback.

Despite his background in the play-making roles in his early days at Wigan, it is hard to imagine the million dollarman in a six or seven jersey at the Warriors. Shaun Johnson, Thomas Leuluai and Chad Townsend will battle for those positions, while Tomkins will look to unseat incumbent fullback Kevin Locke.

Tomkins will offer a predatory try scoring instinct that Locke has rarely demonstrated in recent seasons and is probably a better play-maker. Encouragingly, Tomkins also seems to be coming for the right reasons. He appears to have a different attitude than previous high-profile English imports Andy Platt and Dennis Betts,whose output rarely vindicated their massive salaries.

"We all play because we are competitive," says Tomkins. "I'm very competitive - too much sometimes but that is what drives me. I also understand the opportunity I have got and I never take for granted how lucky I am. I wouldn't change my job for a million pounds ... I've got friends who I used to play with and they don't play any more. They would chop off a leg to do what I get to do and I feel a responsibility that I represent all of them.

He is also used to winning, admitting that a season at Wigan without any trophies was considered a "major failure - I want to do the best I can but there is pressure on everyone," says Tomkins of the expectation on his shoulders. "The Warriors is a squad with massive potential and if we don't deliver on it, it is a waste of time. They weren't a million miles away last year - in a lot of games, there wasn't much in it."

Eden Park

The Warriors must learn to win at Eden Park and improve their record on the road, otherwise the 2014 season could be effectively over by the halfway point.

While the need to group together the three Eden Park fixtures was understandable from a commercial viewpoint, it presents a football risk.

The Auckland team have a strong record at Mt Smart but play there only once in the first half of this season (round 12 versus Knights).

Before that, they have three tricky games at Eden Park against the Dragons, Bulldogs and Raiders, and tough away fixtures against the Cowboys, Storm and Sharks.

They also have an opening game at Parramatta Stadium (scene of last year's round one thrashing), an away game on the Gold Coast, a match in Wellington versus the Tigers and an arduous trip to Perth to face the Rabbitohs.

Given the schedule, the Warriors need to win at least two of their three matches within the 'Season of Eden' to stay in touch. At least the NRL Auckland Nines will give the players a chance to get a feel for the stadium and its pitch and the days of nervy performances there can be put to rest.

There are also some positive aspects to the draw. The team will play eight of their last 13 matches at Mt Smart and only face 2013's top four (the Roosters, Sea Eagles, Storm and Rabbitohs) once apiece.

Last season, they faced all four of that gun quartet home and away. They will also avoid bogey grounds such as Leichhardt Oval and WIN Stadium in Wollongong.

Warriors coach Matt Elliott will have genuine options across many positions next year. Photo / Getty Images
Warriors coach Matt Elliott will have genuine options across many positions next year. Photo / Getty Images

Matt Elliott

For Elliott, the kid gloves will be off. There has been a defined second season syndrome for coaches at Mt Smart Stadium.

John Monie had a promising start in 1995 - the team finished outside the play-offs only on points differential - but his side went backwards in 1996, losing their last four games to tumble out of contention. Monie was gone by round nine the following year.

Frank Endacott just missed the play-offs in his second season and was also dumped, while Mark Graham's 8-16 win-loss record in his second year in 2000 was enough to see him axed.

Tony Kemp was cut after an unconvincing campaign in his second year in the hot seat in 2005.

Bucking this trend, Daniel Anderson took the Warriors all the way to their first grand final in his second year as coach in 2002,while Ivan Cleary proved his mettle during his second term in 2007, taking the team to fourth place.

Elliott needs to deliver this year. He has been given more resources and power than any other Warriors coach and has a squad that matches up well with the best Warriors teams of the past.

Last year was difficult, with an abbreviated pre-season, a new play-making combination, several untimely injuries early in the season and the residual damage done by the woes of 2012. Elliott did well to lead his team out of a hole and make a push for the play-offs but the late-season fade (especially the losses to the Panthers and Dragons) was hard to understand.

Elliott was out-thought by Cleary for the second time in 2013 and the fact that he was unable to raise a 'fire and brimstone' type of performance in Wollongong on the last day of the season was worrying.

He also failed to get the best out of some key Warriors men such as Ben Matulino and Feleti Mateo. Both should be marquee players but Elliott never found the right recipe for the duo in terms of minutes on the field and starting or interchange.

Once he settled on a game plan in the wake of the 62-6 debacle at Penrith Stadium(with input from the senior players), the team started to make strides in the competition.

Simon Mannering is approaching his 200th Warriors game. Photo / Getty Images
Simon Mannering is approaching his 200th Warriors game. Photo / Getty Images

Far from simple Simon

During the next season, Simon Mannering (still only 27) should pass Logan Swann to become the second most capped player in Warriors history, behind only club legend Stacey Jones.

Assuming Mannering remains a one-club man - likely given his standing at MtS mart and the appeal of the Auckland lifestyle - Mannering would be on track to overhaul Jones' record of 261 games.

Manu Vatuvei (171) should move ahead of Lance Hohaia into fourth position and Jerome Ropati is on course to bring up 150matches.

Rabbitohs still the Bunnies

It's hard to imagine given their respective current standings but for years, the Rabbitohs were, ahem, the Warriors' Bunnies. Brisbane (who the Warriors have beaten in 42.4 per cent of their games), Manly (32 per cent) and St George (20 per cent) remain the club's most fearsome foes.