It has taken me a few days to gather the strength to write these words. Sometimes sport has a way of grabbing you, of capturing your life in unexpected ways and consuming your thoughts. One minute you can be out of your seat, pointing both arms to the sky in celebration, and the next you can be slumped over with your head in your hands. It’s a curious thing, it can be a wonderful thing, and it’s something I’ve always been fascinated by.
For many people, watching sport is a distraction, an afterthought or an annoyance. To others it is a spectacle, entertainment, or a hobby. But to me it’s always been more than that. I’ve never been able to fully understand why. All I know is that I feel the highs and lows of the Warriors if I was experiencing them myself. There are moments throughout their history that are etched in my memory bank, saved up and treasured even though I played no part in their creation, and I feel like those moments must be important, valuable in some way, because surely anything that makes you feel so strongly is worth remembering, good or bad.
I really didn’t expect to be so saddened by the injury to Shaun Johnson. When it happened, I knew it was bad. The whole of Mt Smart, everyone watching at home, we all knew it was bad. But it didn’t expect it would keep me up all night. I didn’t expect to be struggling to move past it 24 hours later, 48 hours even.
I’m sure the result of the game didn’t help matters. Anyone who read the preview to the Manly game would realise my expectations were high, and I’m the first to admit I got it horribly wrong. But the more I thought about the injury to Johnson it just seemed like such an injustice. Here’s a young man who has captured the imagination of the sporting public since the Anzac test, who has the ability to do things on a rugby league field that no one else can, who just scored another amazing try, and he breaks his ankle in the process. Do you mean to tell me that for the rest of the rugby league season, I’ll be watching a Warriors side where there’s no possibility that this could happen at any moment?
Surely I’m not the only one who feels sad about that?
That’s probably enough about Johnson, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to jump off this Warriors rollercoaster. In fact, I’m clinging on to hope tighter than ever now, incredibly nervous but somewhat excited to see what’s around the next corner, what the rest of this season has in store, what we’ll learn about this side in the weeks to come.
You may have also noticed I’ve as yet failed to discuss the game. For anyone who watched it, that’s possibly no surprise. And as much as I’d like to sit here and blame the Johnson injury, the referees, bad luck, anything, there’s no hiding from the fact that conceding 32 points, at home, against a team struggling both on and off the field, is unacceptable.
Throw in the fact that Manly were hit with their own injury issues, and it doesn’t get any better. At halftime, the game was all square, there to be won, but in a period of 12 minutes after the break, it was all but decided in the Eagles’ favour. Manly was able to roll up the field much too easily, they seemed more desperate, and for that to happen in such a key game, at such a key time in the season, doesn’t bode well.
I’d hoped the loss to the Roosters was a wake-up call but, after that performance on Saturday evening, it looks like it’s time to get the defibrillator out — stat — or we’ll soon be writing the eulogy on this Warriors season.
Set of Six
1) Aside from the result, perhaps the biggest talking point from the game was the huge number of casualties. Manly were down to 14 men after 35 minutes, with Steve Matai, Luke Burgess and Ligi Sao all off injured, and Tom Symonds looked to be struggling for much of the match until he eventually left the field. The Warriors lost Raymond Faitala-Mariner (although he returned later), Johnson and then Bodene Thompson. It didn’t appear to be the most physical game of the season, but early on there were doubts as to whether either side would still have 13 by the end of the 80 minutes.
2) Two weeks is a long time. The Top 4 seems like a distant memory right now. Fresh off an impressive win against the Storm, the Warriors were rocketing into the championship discussion. But in the space of seven days, the wheels have fallen off and people are talking like the season is already over. Is the New Zealand media too quick to both praise and criticise this team?
3) Who would you play at halfback (or at 6 if Townsend moves to 7)? Tui Lolohea and Sam Tomkins are the contenders, and it’s a tricky decision for Andrew McFadden to make. While I can see the potential benefits of bringing the more experienced Tomkins closer to the action, I’d much prefer to see Lolohea given first crack. Lolohea’s long-term future lies in the halves, especially once Roger Tuivasa-Sheck arrives next year, and he starred in the U20s at 6. Let him loose and encourage him to make that position his for 2016. As much as the Top 8 should still be the goal, putting Tomkins in the halves would be a short-sighted move in my opinion.
4) Does making the Top 8 really matter if the Warriors aren’t serious contenders to win the competition? I’ve heard this question posed a few times since the Johnson injury, and to be honest I think it is absolutely ridiculous. It’s a no brainer that yes, of course it matters. In all cases, players should want to play on the biggest stage, to test themselves at the highest level. But for this team especially, with the amount of young players on the roster, with so few finals appearances, every minute of experience they get in the pressure-cooker could pay huge dividends later. And, you just never know what might happen once you get there.
5) The referees lost control of that game. The Warriors can’t blame anyone but themselves for the loss, but Saturday was a classic case of inexperienced referees bowing down to pressure. On at least two separate occasions, the referee made a decision and then paused, let themselves be talked into a penalty by experienced members of the Manly side and overturned their original decision. There was inconsistency around the speed of the play-the-ball, and then one of the oddest penalties I’ve ever seen. I’m still confused about what this was for. Can anyone tell me?
6) The Warriors are really missing Manu Vatuvei. And to a lesser degree Konrad Hurrell and Ryan Hoffman. The Beast starts every Warriors set off on the front foot, and is often followed up by a run from Hoffman and Hurrell. Without these three, the men from Mt Smart have found it much harder to roll down the field effectively, having a huge impact on their ability to control the territory game.
The Golden Point
We have to move on quickly. Yes, the Johnson injury is a crushing blow. He’s as valuable to the Warriors as Thurston is to the Cowboys, maybe even more so. But it’s not acceptable to give up in his absence. The men from Mt Smart are in 8th spot. They play the Dragons, the Bulldogs and the Sharks in the run home, teams they are competing with for those final few playoff positions. They hold their fate in their own hands. There’s enough talent in this side to make the 8 and, with reinforcements on the way back, the Warriors need to lift themselves off the canvas and find a way to win again, and fast.