As I walked towards the Big Top, two of the biggest drawcards disappeared in the other direction. While Manu Vatuvei and Konrad Hurrell went for a coffee, I sat in my seat and considered the impact their absence might have on the main event. Looking around at the 17,000-plus who had gathered for the Sunday matinee, I could feel the nervous excitement that a game of such significance brings. Win and the Top 4 beckoned. Lose and the Warriors could fall out of the Top 8 completely.
Just moments after the ringmaster welcomed the performers to the arena, sharp-shooter Cooper Cronk had the crowd on the edge of their seat with a quickfire 40–20. The Warriors responded with a juggling act from Raymond Faitala-Mariner that warmed up the crowd, but the judges ruled a dropped ball and the game remained scoreless.
Quick hands from the Warriors’ right edge got the scoreboard working at the 11-minute mark, and after Jonathan Wright wriggled his way out of the first of his four escape acts, rubber man David Fusitu’a’s acrobatics had the audience standing in appreciation. Fusitu’a has a history of high-wire antics
and the way he displayed his talents on Sunday evening will have given Coach Cappy a tough decision about whether to give Fusitu’a a more permanent part in the show.
The Warriors right side continued to terrorise the Storm defence, making Hymel Hunt look like a clown. And when strong man Bodene Thompson burst through another soft tackle to make it 16–0, the angriest coach in the game gave Hunt the hook.
It had been an action packed first half, but there was still time for Jonathan Wright to put out a couple more fires before we went to the break.
At intermission, the sun went down and the temperature dropped. The lights came on, the Warriors walked the tightrope with their ball control and it felt like a Storm was on the way.
But every time Melbourne got within sight, any time it looked like something might go wrong, something spectacular happened. Like all great performers, the men from Mt Smart flirted with danger, giving the illusion of trouble, before pulling a rabbit out of their hat and bowing for their applause.
Nathan Friend’s trapeze display, where he swung above the pack and passed the ball between his legs in the middle of a backwards somersault, had many calling it the greatest try they’d ever seen.
But the freak show, Shaun Johnson, was not to be out-done. One minute the Hot Stepper was there, but then he disappeared right in front of Cameron Munster’s eyes. Seconds later, he revealed himself once more, planting the ball over the tryline. It was a truly mesmerizing display of trickery. One day, we may tell our children we watched one of the greatest illusionists of all time.
The final act of the evening was the second of two World’s Fastest Man displays, just to get the crowd on their feet one last time before the curtains came down.
And while you couldn’t argue this was a flawless performance from the home side, you’d be hard-pressed to find highlights like that anywhere else in the world. It was top-class entertainment.
SET OF SIX
1) No Hurrell, no Hoffman, no Vatuvei — no worries. It seems like the depth in this Warriors side grows week-by-week. Without three of their biggest stars, the men who are often called upon to make the hard metres out of their own end, the Warriors didn’t miss a beat. Jonathan Wright starred on defence, David Fusitu’a looked a class above on attack and Raymond Faitala-Mariner continued his impressive development. Add to that the likes of Lisone, Maumalo, Fisiiahi, Rapira and many more in the NSW Cup and I don’t envy the coaching staff during the upcoming selection meetings.
2) By no means was that the perfect performance. The Warriors made a few costly errors at inconvenient times, and couldn’t quite put Melbourne away until very late in the game. The Storm had 56% of possession, largely due to a 68% completion rate from the NZ side. But, despite that, for the majority of that match it felt like the men from Mt Smart made all the running. Every time it seemed as if the Storm were coming back into the match, the Warriors hit back to keep them at arm’s length. #Top4.
3) It was a tricky night for the video referees. To me, both the Faitala-Mariner no try and the Lolohea ‘greatest try of all time’ could have gone either way. Was there conclusive evidence to say Munster touched the ball before Everybody Loves Raymond? Did Tui lose the ball milliseconds before he grounded it?
4) Gerard Sutton deserves his place in the top tier of NRL referees. It’s not often you hear anyone praise a match official, but the way Sutton policed the 10-metres was very impressive. On Sunday, he had both sides back 12 metres at times, allowing him to hold back on the penalties and let the game flow, while also giving the playmakers — Johnson and Cronk in particular — room to shine.
5) That was Bodene Thompson’s best game in a Warriors’ jumper. I was critical of Thompson earlier in the season, but he’s really stepped up his game in the past few weeks. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the rise in Shaun Johnson’s form has coincided with Thompson looking much more threatening on attack, but Bodene deserves all the accolades he’s starting to get. On Sunday evening he ran the ball with real intent, and was equally as elusive as part of a Warriors’ right edge that was simply too hot for the Storm to handle.
6) Although it sometimes gets lost in among the flashy plays from his teammates, Simon Mannering’s defensive work is outstanding. I often wonder where Mannering will sit among Warriors and Kiwis greats when his career is over. He doesn’t score the tries or create the magic like Shaun Johnson and Big Manu, but he’s no less important to this Warriors side. His kick chase, the way he wrestles in the tackle, even just his effort and commitment on the defensive end — these are things of beauty.
THE GOLDEN POINT
Shaun Johnson looks ready to lead this team to a title. I’m not suggesting the Warriors will win the NRL in 2015, but, if Johnson can keep this form up, you’d be brave to rule it out completely. He started the season slowly and copped a lot of criticism early in the year, but right now he looks absolutely unstoppable. Johnson can do things that no one else in the game is capable of. At times it seems as if he’s in a video game, stepping and weaving too quickly, too elusively for the human eye to comprehend. He looks focussed too, demanding more touches of the ball. With Sam Tomkins back in the side, and Chad Townsend playing a steadying role, Johnson is able to roam the field for tired defenders and capitalise on any slight lapse in concentration. There’s still eight weeks until playoff time, and plenty of tougher tests than Melbourne to come before then, but if you’re not excited by this,
it’s time to strap on that wingsuit and launch yourself off a cliff.
There were so many highlights on Sunday that I’m giving you two options. If you’re short on time, check out this brief highlights package:
But if you’ve got some time on your hands, sit back and enjoy.