It shapes as one of the most lethal halves combinations to hit the NRL in 2017, but Kiwis-turned-Warriors pair Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran will have two talented rookies hot on their heels this season.
There’s been change aplenty in Auckland this year, with former Eels and Kiwis boss Stephen Kearney coming on board as head coach and Ricky Henry replacing Warriors legend Stacey Jones in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW role. Throw long-term Kiwis five-eighth Foran into the mix and the pieces are in place for improvements across both grades.
Foran, however, is not yet assured a spot in the Warriors’ line-up for Round 1, with the NRL yet to register his playing contract amidst concerns for his mental health. While it remains unclear how long the 26-year-old will be sidelined, it could open up a starting spot for one of Ata Hingano, 19, or Mason Lino, 23. Both undeniably talented and playing two and three NRL games respectively last year, Henry revealed the front-runner to step into Foran’s shoes.
“Obviously the starting halves will be Shaun and Kieran,” Henry tells NSWRL.com.au, “but Ata’s also done some good things over the off-season so it’s highly likely that he’ll step into that role if Kieran’s not available.
“In saying that, Mason’s been great in the off-season, he’s done a really good job of leading the team around and gets another chance this week in the trial [against the Storm] on the Sunshine Coast.”
Lino, a Samoa international, has long been identified as a potential first grader, scoring 503 points over 62 Holden Cup games and captaining the Warriors to the 2014 premiership in that competition. His class was recognised with the captaincy of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW side last year, where he was destructive alongside emerging talent Hingano. The battle between the two is an intriguing one, but Hingano appears to have edged in front as the Warriors’ backup playmaker.
“He [Hingano] has obviously been earmarked to play first grade at some point; he got a couple of goes last year,” Henry says. “He’s someone that we rate very highly at the Warriors ranks, but at the same time he’s still learning.
“Learning from pros like Kieran and Shaun, that will only help him with his development.”
Outside of the halves, the Warriors will again field large sides in both grades this year, with brothers Pat and Toafofoa Sipley headlining an imposing pack in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW. The changing of the guard in the coaching ranks, Henry says, has brought a feeling of optimism across the Tasman.
“Stephen Kearney has come on board, our focus has been around making sure we’re prepared for the season ahead and that there’s pressure being put on from our [Intrust Super Premiership NSW] guys on first grade,” Henry adds. “Hopefully by doing that, our guys get to step up to first grade.
“The last couple of years we’ve been sort of there or thereabouts. We’re just looking forward to giving it another good shake this year and hopefully do better than the last two years.”
While many of the Warriors’ Intrust Super Premiership NSW players will face the Storm in a pre-season clash tonight, their first assignment of the season proper will come at home against 2016 wooden spooners the Newcastle Knights. Traditionally strong at Mt Smart Stadium, first grade spots will be up for grabs from kick-off of the club’s 2017 campaign.