With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.
Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.
It was all going so swimmingly for Andrew Webster. Dally M Coach of the Year in his first season, beloved throughout New Zealand and with a settled squad that was likely only to get better with two proven talents joining for 2024 in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Chanel Harris-Tavita.
Then Thursday’s bombshell from star prop Addin Fonua-Blake. His request for an immediate release on compassionate grounds shocked the club, who had seen him dominate like never before in the year just gone, and presented a huge challenge to Webster and the Warriors’ recruitment team.
When the Wahs were at their best in 2023, it was because they built a system that combined conservative play up the field then fast, incessant attack once within range.
Going into 2024, that could have been supercharged with RTS moving to the centre to add an extra level of flair and CHT bringing versatility across the spine and plenty of experience.
Of their departures, only Josh Curran and Bayley Sironen were regular starters and both could be replaced, with plenty of depth in the back row and middle rotation, plus a NSW Cup side with several players battering down the door for more NRL minutes – not least, in those positions, Kalani Going, Demetric Sifakula and Zyon Maiu’u.
Then the Fonua-Blake news hit. The positive development is that he’s now committed to another year, leaving in at the end of 2024, with the club insistent that they get time to find a replacement.
Perfect, then, for Smart Signings to come in and offer Webby and the recruitment team a hand.
We’ve already discussed Ewing Theory – which holds that teams can get better when their best player leaves – in relation to the Dragons and Ben Hunt, but it isn’t quite appropriate in the case of the Warriors.
Firstly, Ewing Theory is just that, a theory, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a lot of teams, somewhat predictably, get worse by losing their superstar.
Secondly, Fonua-Blake is just one of the Wahs’ superstars, and while he is the highest paid prop in the comp, he’s probably just one layer down on the absolute best.
As a third point, he’s tactically interesting in terms of their attack because while the Warriors do build a lot around his capabilities, that’s likely just because he’s there and they can.
He’s not central to the wider strategy, like Payne Haas or Junior Paulo are at their teams, or indeed, like Shaun Johnson or Tohu Harris were in 2023. AFB is a nice to have, not the fulcrum.
So how do they replace him? It’s not really feasible to get another Fonua-Blake, unless Haas or Paulo suddenly fancy breaking their contracts and moving to Auckland, but it’s certainly possible to replace his impact across the team.
That ‘moving to Auckland’ part matters too, as the Wahs have been burned several times of late by guys who got homesick and ended up leaving early.
Where AFB is elite is in his workrate and his hands, which are up there with the best of all the NRL’s big men, and if Webster wants to break those two skills apart, there are options available.
Notably from the current Kiwis squad, two are in camp and off contract in 2025 in Leo Thompson and Griffin Neame.
Thompson is 23 but played the most minutes of any Knights prop in 2023, getting through a power of work in a team that largely didn’t focus on their props for yardage.
AFB’s tackle break stats were insane – third most in the NRL – but Thompson is sixth among props and defensively, he’s already hitting AFB’s numbers despite playing ten minutes fewer per match.
With more responsibility, more first grade and more time on the park, the potential is clearly there.
Neame can go a long way too. His metres per run is in the same ballpark as Fonua-Blake, and when averaged per minute, he’s making more metres and more post-contact metres, too.
Neame is 22, so even younger than Thompson, and physically larger too. His handling is, as they say, good for a big man and matched AFB for line break assists in a Cowboys side that was far less effective with the ball as a whole than the Warriors were.
Neither are on megabucks at their current clubs and, with contracts up for negotiation this time next year, Webster could lock in a starting pair long-term.
Even better, they could make offers to Newcastle and North Queensland involving players that they already have in surplus.
The Wahs currently bat deep in their squad, with Rocco Berry, Luke Metcalf, Freddy Lussick, Jazz Tevaga, Jackson Ford and Taine Taupiki potentially not in their best 17 but who would present upgrades to those two clubs.
Metcalf and Lussick would interest the Cowboys, who will certainly lose Chad Townsend, Jake Granville and Kyle Feldt and potentially also Semi Valemei and Zac Laybutt.
The Knights will be down at two centres in Dane Gagai and Enari Tuala, with a potential third if Bradman Best leaves, opening the door for Berry if, as expected, RTS becomes a centre this year and Ali Leiataua continues his development.
Of those available to start in 2025 when Fonua-Blake actually leaves, things are a lot more complicated.
The ageing elite prop market is strong – Jesse Bromwich, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Tom Burgess top of the pile – and the likes of Braden Hamlin-Uele, Toby Rudolf and Jarrod Wallace could certainly fit in if they wanted a system fit.
Wallace, with his halfback-like hands, would be a lot of fun indeed but as ever with Warriors, it’s hard to see any burning desire to move to New Zealand, however.
Losing a top player like AFB is, obviously, bad, and Webster would have wanted to build the next evolution of the Warriors around his pack leader.
But every crisis is an opportunity, and by buying themselves an extra year, the club get to think long and hard about what sort of system they want to run and how they want to advance as a team.
By adding Tuivasa-Sheck and Harris-Tavita they have upped the collective experience levels and added extra quality both to the first 17 and their depth options. They have plenty coming through, especially in the forwards, and the whole squad will be better for this year’s run.
Now, they can take the $1m they were going to give their prop and split it smartly across two players, the collective level can rise yet further, trusting young Kiwi talent to get the job done.