A more settled build-up, fewer injuries and the arrival of a high-profile recruit mean the Warriors are confident they’re ready to rise this NRL season.
The Warriors flirted with the play-offs last season, before their topsy-turvy campaign finished in disappointment in the final weekend.
“I’d be devastated to be in the same position in round 26 this year,” says coach Matthew Elliott.
“I think as a group, we are far better than we were last year. Obviously, my expectations are a lot higher.”
Elliott said there were a lot of variables in footy and most teams looked like they had improved from 2013.
“It’s a challenge for us, but I hope we’re not scrapping over eighth position that’s for sure.”
The Warriors’ squad, led by Kiwis skipper Simon Mannering, has good depth to it.
The second-rower is part of a core of experience at the club, while others like twinkle-toed half-back Shaun Johnson, still only 23, have another year of game knowledge to draw on.
Then there is the addition of England international Sam Tomkins, a prolific try-scorer for Super League giants Wigan and one of the biggest signings in the Warriors’ 19-year history.
Elliott said Tomkins had shown in his brief time in Auckland that the club made a good decision in targeting him.
“Just his competitiveness and his professionalism around how he prepares have rubbed off on a few people already,” he said.
“He’s a very vocal fullback, so he’s been outstanding.”
New Zealand international Kevin Locke’s knee injury, which means he’ll sit out the start of the season, has put the battle for the No.1 jersey on hold.
What happens when Locke is fit again is just one of the selection decisions that Elliott is relishing being confronted with.
Without the crowded casualty ward that restricted his options at the same time last year, Elliott will have other calls to make before the Warriors are away to Parramatta on March 9.
“You ask me about any position and it’s really hard to be definitive,” he said.
“Obviously, with Kevin out, the decision between him and Sam has been made for us in the initial stages, but in every other position across the paddock there’s some real competition.”
A feature of the Warriors’ draw is that they won’t run out at their traditional home venue, Mt Smart Stadium, until Newcastle are in town on June 1.
They do play in Auckland three times before them, but at rugby union mecca Eden Park, where they have failed to win an NRL match in three appearances.
“It gives us a great challenge to be the first to do that,” Elliott said.
“The expectation around that is we not only become the first team to win there, but we do it several times.”
Elliott is in his second season with the Warriors.
His appointment in October 2012 made him the club’s fourth coach, permanent or interim, in just over a year.
The timing meant the former Canberra and Penrith mentor had to hit the ground running.
“I was still appointing staff during November, so we’re a lot more settled now,” he said.
“If you have four bosses in 12 months, you’d scratching your head a little bit, but the head scratching is gone and the expectations are clear.”
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – 11th, 2012 – 14th, 2011 – grand finalists
Coach: Matthew Elliott
Captain: Simon Mannering
Gains: Sam Tomkins (Wigan), Jayson Bukuya (Cronulla), Chad Townsend (Cronulla)
Losses: Elijah Taylor (Penrith), Todd Lowrie (Brisbane), Bill Tupou (Canberra), Steve Rapira (Salford), Pita Godinet (Wakefield Trinity), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Sydney Roosters), Russell Packer.
Strength: The arrival of big-money signing Sam Tomkins has augmented an attack already with its share of X-factor.
Weakness: Inconsistency, a trait that has traditionally dogged the Warriors.
Money Man: Shaun Johnson. Still only 23, he now has three seasons of NRL experience to go with his mercurial talents.
One to watch: Sam Tomkins. The England fullback has a superb strike rate of 144 tries in 151 matches for Super League champions Wigan. The question is how he’ll make the transition to the NRL.
Best team: Sam Tomkins, Kevin Locke, Dane Nielsen, Konrad Hurrell, Manu Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson, Jacob Lillyman, Nathan Friend, Sam Rapira, Feleti Mateo, Simon Mannering (captain), Jayson Bukuya. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Suaia Matagi, Ben Henry, Chad Townsend.
Predicted finish: 9