Michael Burgess: Next four NRL games will determine whether this really is Warriors’ season

OPINION:

The next four games will define the Warriors’ 2021 season.

It’s not quite make-or-break, but it’s pretty close to it.

With a five-win, seven-loss record at the halfway point, the Warriors have to stamp their mark on the NRL over the next month – or their chances of being involved in finals football will be minimal.

The Auckland club has often prospered throughout the State of Origin period, as they rarely have players involved in the interstate series while other clubs are depleted, and it needs to happen again in 2021.

The Warriors face the Storm on Saturday, looking for their first win over the Melbourne team since 2015. Craig Bellamy’s team have been superb this season but could be vulnerable, with five players backing up from Wednesday’s first Origin battle and Kenny Bromwich (rib injury), Ryan Papenhyzen (concussion), and Nelson Asofa-Solomona (facing possible suspension) in doubt.

That match is followed by games against the Knights (10 points), Dragons (12), and Sharks (10), all teams among a group of clubs fighting for a couple of playoff spots.

The Warriors (12 points) will need to win at least two and ideally three of those games, otherwise, their task will become grim, with games in July against Penrith and South Sydney.

Across the NRL the Panthers (24), Storm (22), Eels (20), and Rabbitohs (20) look a class above this season, while the fifth-placed Roosters (18) have stayed in touch despite their awful injury run.

That leaves three places available in the top eight.

Manly (14) appear to be the best of the rest, which could mean the Warriors will be duelling with seven other teams (Cowboys, Dragons, Sharks, Tigers, Titans, Raiders, and Knights) for just two spots, with the hapless Broncos and Bulldogs already planning for next year.

For the Warriors, there is little margin for error. There is certainly no room for any more games blown from highly promising positions, as happened against the Sea Eagles (Gosford) and Cowboys (Townsville).

History shows the Warriors are in a precarious position.

The last time they made the finals (2018), they already had an 8-4 record at the halfway point of the season, before banking another seven victories to finish tied with three others teams on 32 points, just two off the minor premiers.

In 2011, Ivan Cleary’s team were 7-5 on the ledger after 12 rounds, then won seven of their last nine games to book sixth place.

Perhaps the best template for the impending challenge for Nathan Brown’s squad is illustrated by the 2010 season.

Back then the Warriors had a 5-7 record in the middle of the year, identical to this season. From there they put together a five-game winning streak and lost only three games in the second half of the season to finish fifth.

The 2008 campaign provided a similar recipe. After only five wins from their first 12 games, the Warriors recorded eight victories from their next dozen matches (including an unbeaten July) to sneak into eighth place.

The Warriors’ chances of a turnaround in June and early July will be boosted by the return of Addin Fonua-Blake. The marquee prop made a considerable impact before his injury in round four and the Warriors’ pack hasn’t been the same without him, with his post-contact metres, leadership, and presence.

Brown should have the luxury of a near fully fit squad over the next few weeks, with back-rowers Josh Curran and Bayley Sironen also expected to return soon, after having to deal with a significant injury toll in the first three months of this season.

Warriors’ finals forecast
The Warriors most recent playoff seasons; record at halfway point (and record during second-half of season):

2018: 8-4 (7-5)
2011: 7-5 (7-5)
2010: 5-7 (9-3)
2008: 5-7 (8-4)

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