The 24 roster moves that revived the NZ Warriors

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They’ve come from all over the NRL landscape, mostly because the Warriors themselves were trudging over the same foreign terrain to keep the competition afloat.

Shaun Johnson and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad had to come home. Addin Fonua-Blake had to find a new one.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak came with a $400,000 sweetener from Canterbury; Jackson Ford came just looking for a crack and more than 20 minutes a game.

Coach Andrew Webster’s own road to the Warriors saw him captain-coaching at Connecticut and cleaning up rubbish at Hull KR. At the Warriors, he has pulled together a squad sourced predominantly from outside New Zealand, to the point 14 of his starting 17 against the Broncos have been recruited from NRL rivals.

For a Kiwi outfit determined to be a development club, things have been backwards in more ways than one – with around $2.5 million invested in star forwards Fonua-Blake, Tohu Harris and Marata Niukore dwarfing the money spent on Webster’s cut-price playmaking spine.

But then the Warriors know better than anyone, a pandemic means things are done a little differently.

“A lot of the roster has been brought together by circumstances to a degree,” recruitment manager and former head coach Andrew McFadden says.

“For three years there’s been a bit of patching things up. But getting home last year the emphasis was on recruiting proven, quality, experienced players.”

The fingerprints of McFadden’s predecessor, Peter O’Sullivan – now with Wayne Bennett at the Dolphins – can still be seen on a Warriors roster that first came together in dribs and drabs. Harris was lured from Melbourne in mid-2017 as a key building block.

Fonua-Blake and Watene-Zelezniak were both opportunistic pick-ups in 2021 when the former “needed to get out of Sydney” and the latter came with the Bulldogs paying half his $800,000 to ease their salary cap pressure.

The rag tag Warriors: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jackson Ford, Shaun Johnson and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak are all flying at the Kiwi club.Credit: Nathan Perri

Johnson’s two-year homecoming deal – reportedly worth around $500,000 – was sorted relatively quickly in late 2021 when he was all but signed with Canterbury.

And then, no less than 24 roster comings and goings in 12 months turbo-charged the Warriors overhaul, with all but a few taking place before Webster took charge last November.

“We signed Mitch Barnett, Dylan Walker, Marata Niukore and Luke Metcalf all in a big hit,” chief executive Cameron George says.

“Mitch, Marata and Dylan Walker have played a fair bit of NRL, they’re resilient, tough and competitive. That’s what they are above all else.

“They want to win and you’ve seen that throughout their career, and that mongrel, that competitive mindset, was what we set off looking for.

“Luke Metcalf wanted an NRL opportunity and then Charnze, on the back of Reece Walsh going home to Brisbane, it was the same thing for him.”

McFadden, who recommended Nicoll-Klokstad to the Raiders in 2019 before treading the same path back to Auckland last year, adds: “The truth with Charnze is that NZ is the only place he was going to play to his best because he needed to be with his family.”

Ford has proven one of the finds of the season after McFadden originally picked him up on a “modest” deal as little more than back-row back-up.

The 24 roster moves made by the Warriors since March, 2022

Ins: Marata Niukore (Eels), Dylan Walker (Sea Eagles), Luke Metcalf (Sharks), Mitch Barnett (Knights), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Raiders), Te Maire Martin (Broncos), Jackson Ford (Dragons), Brayden Wiliame (Catalans Dragons), Ronald Volkman, Freddy Lussick (Roosters) .

Outs: Reece Walsh, Jesse Arthars (Broncos, Arthars was loaned to the Warriors for 2022), Euan Aitken (Dolphins), Eliesa Katoa, Aaron Pene (Storm), Daejarn Asi, Jack Murchie (Eels), Ben Murdoch-Masila (Dragons), Matt Lodge (Roosters – Warriors paying salary), Kodi Nikorima (Rabbitohs), Ash Taylor (retired), Jackson Frei, Dunamis Lui, Chanel Harris-Tavita (released).

Five-eighth Te Maire Martin was in the same discussion until a broken leg cost him most of his 2023, his comeback for the finals covering Metcalf’s own season-ending hamstring tear.

Martin, Niukore, Johnson and Nicoll-Klokstad have all made their way back home, just as the Warriors did the same after two and a half years playing out of the Central Coast and Redcliffe.

But the biggest long-term win for the club is the chance to hang onto New Zealand’s best and brightest in the first place.

“We haven’t had a NSW Cup team or any junior rep teams for three years,” George says. “Even when we were in Australia and linked with Redcliffe, we could only play six players there under the system in place, we were sharing players around.

“So we just haven’t had pathways or opportunities for kids to come through in a Warriors jumper. Now we’ve got NSW Cup back and next year, SG Ball and Harold Matthews, Jersey Flegg, and then in 2025 we’re hoping to introduce an NRLW team.

Happy at home: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is thriving at the Warriors again after first leaving in 2019.Credit: Getty

“So what you saw in the NRL – a nomadic team travelling the east coast of Australia – that was all we had, we just didn’t have players coming through below that.

“You have to understand that we have had players being coached over the last year three years in first grade and they were still being coached on how to play the basics. From next year we’re going to be on equal footing with every other club.”

A winning team with a nation behind it helps too. More than 1200 applications landed with the club when trials were held last weekend to fill their expanded junior ranks for next year.

“We want to be a development club. That’s our philosophy and it’s important to us,” McFadden says.

“All our best Warriors teams of the past have been predominantly locally sourced players. We’ll always have to recruit from Australia of course, because that’s where the other 16 teams are, but we certainly want to look after our backyard first and foremost.

“In all honesty, rival NRL teams have used it against us when they’re talking to players, because we haven’t had the same opportunities to offer them.

“As long as we get our coaching structures and pathways right, we can be a real powerhouse in developing a strong contingent of kids. That’s not to say we won’t lose a Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, but we need to be bringing our own quality players through.”

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