It goes without saying that the New Zealand Warriors have been the NRL’s bravest team over the past two seasons.

This is a side who have been forced to play every match in a country which they don’t call their own, in two different bases, and dealt with an injury crisis so severe at the back-end of 2021 that at one point, they couldn’t name 21 fit players.

Despite that, the Warriors were in the hunt to play finals football in 2021 well into the back half of the season, but in the end, the injuries and circumstances simply proved too much to overcome, and they finished 12th.

Still, that Nathan Brown managed to get his side to escape the bottom four was a feat in itself. The win over the Wests Tigers with players injured and out of position stands out as one of the high points of their season.

New Zealand Warriors Media Opportunity
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 04: Warriors Head Coach Nathan Brown during a New Zealand Warriors NRL media opportunity at Mount Smart Stadium on December 04, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

But that lingering doubt still exists. That feeling that it should be more for the Warriors. More than just escaping the bottom four.

They certainly have enough talent in the squad, and Shaun Johnson’s return to the club as an experienced ball-running half will only improve that.

But it also goes without saying there are gaps in what would be considered as their best 17 - so who would the Warriors grab to take the next step in 2022 if all salary cap and contract constraints were removed from the competition?

Who would your club steal?
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Current squad for 2022

Bunty Afoa, Euan Aitken, Rocco Berry, Josh Curran, Wayde Egan, Addin Fonua-Blake, Tohu Harris, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Shaun Johnson, Temple Kalepo, Eliesa Katoa, Edward Kosi, Matthew Lodge, Marcelo Montoya, Jack Murchie, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Kodi Nikorima, Taniela Otukolo, Aaron Pene, Pride Petterson-Robati, Adam Pompey, Iliesa Ratuva, Bayley Sironen, Jazz Tevaga, Viliami Vailea, Reece Walsh, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak

Gaps in the Warriors’ best 17

There are plenty of glaring problems in the Warriors’ best 17, and that makes this an exercise in working out which one impacts the club the most.

All of the centres, wings and hooker could do with upgrading, while a solid bench forward could also be critical for a side who seem to lose their way once Matt Lodge and Addin Fonua-Blake hit the pine midway through the first half.

It had previously been tipped that David Fusitu’a may shift into the centres for 2022, but he has now left the side. It leaves Rocco Berry as the likely centre, while Marcelo Montoya would line up outside him on the wing. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Euan Aitken, who should shift back into the centres, are more than serviceable on the other side of the park.

Chanel Harris-Tavita may not be at the club beyond 2022, but his partnership with Shaun Johnson could be an exciting one for the upcoming season, and that certainly isn’t the Warriors’ biggest problem.

As mentioned, Lodge and Fonua-Blake hold a very strong front for the Warriors in the middle third of the park while Josh Curran was a breakout star in 2021, and Eliesa Katoa the year before.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 27: Addin Fonua-Blake of the Warriors is tackled during the round three NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the Warriors at GIO Stadium on March 27, 2021, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Tohu Harris at lock also completes a fairly strong forward pack, with Harris having transformed himself into one of the game’s hardest-working players.

But it’s hooker where the Warriors themselves are skeptical. Taniela Otukolo is the long-term future of the club, but a short-term option for him to learn off, and someone who knows how to spark an attack, given the Warriors had the third-worst record in the competition, only scoring more points than the Brisbane Broncos and hapless Canterbury Bulldogs.

The bench forwards - Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Bayley Sironen and likely Ben Murdoch-Masila - could also do with an upgrade.

Candidates to steal

Option 1: Brandon Smith (Melbourne Storm)
If you're looking for a dummy half who can do it at both ends of the football field, then you wouldn't look much further than Brandon Smith.

Given the incidents since the end of the season, one could argue he may not be the perfect fit for the Warriors in an attitude sense, but it's on-field attitude which counts for the Auckland-based club.

They lack the ability to play 80 minutes, but if there's one thing Smith has proven, it's that he can do that, and do it while putting out unbelievable output and production.

That doesn't mean he is the most technically gifted dummy half in the game, but that's not what the Warriors need either.

They need a bit of vibrant creativity, and someone who is willing to go to war defensively, tackling all day and not letting a sole past him.

Smith brings all of that and more, and so it's hard to argue he wouldn't be one of those players who would turn the Warriors into something a lot more than they currently are.

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Option 2: Dane Gagai (Newcastle Knights)
If you're looking at an option in the outside backs, the Warriors will have three key criteria: Winning experience, defensive excellence and an ability to play in a system.

Dane Gagai brings all of those to his game, and will take them to the Knights next year following his shift from the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The ability to play both centre and wing, fitting in where needed as the Warriors juggle the expectations of youngsters and injuries, would also be critical.

His defensive game is up there with the best in the competition, while his attitude and experience would help professionalism the Warriors.

Not only that, but he has been a key part of the NRL's most dangerous left edge. Overlooked because of the brilliance from Cameron Murray, Damien Cook, Cody Walker and the try-scoring ways of Alex Johnston, Gagai is the glue which holds it together.

He is a far bigger loss from South Sydney than people are making out.

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Option 3: Josh Hodgson (Canberra Raiders)
The Raiders' hooker might be on the outer at his current club, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't be the perfect fit elsewhere.

He has been heavily linked with a move to the Wests Tigers, but Hodgson would be the ideal candidate to move to the Warriors.

Like Smith, he is defensively brilliant, but unlike Smith, he brings experience and a veteran caginess to his game which the Warriors desperately need to add to their squad.

They have Tohu Harris, Matt Lodge and Addin Fonua-Blake in the middle third, which, on paper, should be one of the strongest core groups in the competition.

Good service out of dummy half is essential to make that work, and you'd have to argue they haven't got it to the level they need it at this stage.

Enter Hodgson. A perfect option to play the hooking role at the Warriors, his service to the forwards is excellent, and his ability to run the ball will keep defensive lines guessing.

A combination with Reece Walsh and Shaun Johnson is also somewhat scary to think about.

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Option 4: Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Melbourne Storm)
Vaccination issues aside, there are few props scarier to come off the bench than Nelson Asofa-Solomona.

The giant prop is a wrecking-ball for the Storm at the worst of times, and is one of the hardest players to tackle in the competition without a doubt.

It's exactly what the Warriors need - a prop to re-enforce the middle after that first 25 minute burst, but also someone to exploit tired defensive lines and create opportunities for Shaun Johnson and Reece Walsh.

It's what Asofa-Solomona does in Melbourne with great success for the likes of Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Ryan Papenhuyzen, with his ability to drag defenders and offload creating scoring opportunities.

He may not be the game's best defender, but the Warriors need a game-breaker. Asofa-Solomona can be that.

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The verdict

This is a tough one. The Warriors have issues to fix, and it's unclear which is the biggest problem, or more to the point, which of these solutions would send them in the right direction quickly.

As tempted as it is to take a dummy half, Egan improved at the back-end of 2021, and could continue to do so in 2022.

That means it's either Gagai or Asofa-Solomona. Both players are game-breakers in their own right, however, the Warriors have players they can develop into that role on the bench, including the raging Bunty Afoa.

That means Gagai is the man.

Dane Gagai (Newcastle Knights)

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 12: Dane Gagai of the Rabbitohs looks on during the round nine NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium on May 12, 2019 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Next up in this series we will check out the North Queensland Cowboys.