I knew those words were coming, but the inevitability does nothing to dull the pain. Until that bucket of chicken appeared on the screen, there was hope, however slight, of a great escape. The possibility of evading another Shark attack, of staying alive, of dreaming big. Now, there’s nothing but another missed opportunity, another week trying to pick myself off the canvas, another week trying to convince myself that all is not lost.
Fifty seconds to go — please Cummins just blow the whistle — put an end to this.
I watch the clock, not the game. I can’t bear it.
The seconds tick like the last grains of sand falling to the bottom of the hourglass. It feels easier to focus on the constancy of time, the ticking clock, than the immediacy, the consequences of what has happened.
I hear a noise. People motion to leave. I stand to let them escape. I return to my seat.
I look at the scoreboard again. Time has expired. The Warriors score is 14. Cronulla has 18.
On the field, the players are shaking hands. Some put on a brave face. Some do not.
My hands are shaking slightly, too, as they cover my face. I close my eyes for a second, even though my fingers already block the view, and try to comprehend how and why I am not celebrating a victory.
Eventually I stand once again. I clap softly as the players leave the field, then turn away, up the steps and then down, until without realising it, I am at home.
I’m in a chair and, on the television, the game kicks off again. It feels like I am in my living room but I can’t be 100 per cent sure. It’s like déjà vu — I’ve been here before, I’ve seen this before — only things aren’t quite exactly the same.
At halftime the Warriors lead 10–0. The attack isn’t fluid but the effort is there. They’ve been patient, dominated possession (66%) and controlled the controllables (90% completion rate). The finishing touches are missing, they can’t break the line — time after time the Sharks hold out — but it’s a huge turnaround from the previous week.
But in the second half, the tide turns and in the blink of an eye it is 12-all. Dominance has transformed into parity and all that good work now counts for nothing. The Warriors’ errors are slight, but the Sharks are ruthless, isolating a weakness and then ripping the defensive line to shreds. My instinct is to criticise, but my head tells me to give the Sharks some credit. They have absorbed the pressure and then hit back in style.
As the game enters the final stages, even watching the match a second time, it still feels tense. There’s a sense that the Warriors should win, arguably deserve to win, but they have conceded three long-range tries and find themselves behind. Yes, the men from Mt Smart could have, perhaps should have, shut down those moves, but the Sharks have been excellent at the most crucial moments — clinical, calculating. With every sniff of blood in the water they have torn the Warriors apart.
I watch and rewind the final NO TRY a number of times. I look for doubt, a Sharks hand, something to feel hard done by, but there’s no new revelation. The score remains 14–18 as the final whistle blows. I have seen enough. Maybe too much. It is too tough to consider the future, the repercussions.
I turn the television off and stare at the blank screen for much longer than I ever thought possible.
SET OF SIX
1) Going into the match, it felt like a must-win, but was the performance enough to at least give it one more week before we put a line through the Top 8 chances? I still think it will take four wins from these next five games, but the improved performance makes it harder to totally give up hope. The Dragons put away a struggling Newcastle at the weekend, but losses for the Dogs and the Raiders means the men from Mt Smart haven’t lost a lot of ground. If they can beat the Dragons on Saturday . . .
2) That said, does the fact the Warriors dominated the game for such long periods make it more concerning that they still conceded 18 points? I’m prepared to praise the Sharks for the way they finished off all three of their tries, and the way they sparked into action as soon as they saw an opportunity to strike. But the critic in me wonders whether the men from Mt Smart were taught a tough lesson about being alert at all times. They had the game totally under control, offensively, defensively, possession, territory — everything. But one missed tackle and the game changed. All three Cronulla tries came from nothing, and maybe the most telling stat is that, despite the weight of possession being heavily in the Warriors’ favour, they lost the missed tackle count 27 to 17.
3) Free Tui Lolohea. He appeared confident, and, along with Vatuvei and Hurrell, looked the most likely to break the line or create space for someone else. It was clear both Sam Tomkins and Chad Townsend were trying to take the pressure off of Lolohea at times, but here’s hoping with each passing week that Tui’s leash is extended further and further and he’s given every opportunity to stake his claim for a halves spot in 2016.
4) What a shame the Kiwis couldn’t snap up Valentine Holmes. What a talent this kid is. He superbly finished two tries on Saturday — the chip and re-gather was, in particular, a real touch of class. Add that to the composure he’s shown all year, starting at the Nines, with last-minute drop goals or sideline conversions. He could be something really special.
5) Jeff Robson did a great job containing Ben Matulino. In the final wash-up, Robson’s impact could easily go unnoticed, but the way he floored Matulino again and again in the danger zone played a huge role in restricting the Warriors to just 10 points in that first half. It was clear that the men from Mt Smart hoped to use Matulino’s size and skill on the edges to crack the Cronulla defence, but Robson stood firm.
6) As much as it pains me to praise Michael Ennis, he had a heck of a game. He’s someone we all love to hate, but watching him live gave me a new appreciation for all the little things he does. He consistently engaged Warriors’ defenders from dummy-half, and showed the value of having a number 9 with a kicking game.
The Golden Point
I can’t help but wonder why the Warriors didn’t make the most of their attacking weapons. Cronulla’s strength lies in the middle of the park, built around Gallen and Ennis, and instead of trying to test them on the edges with Hurrell and Vatuvei, the Warriors kept turning the ball back inside. Perhaps the plan was to stay patient and trust that eventually the Sharks would break. And maybe that would have been the case had the Warriors not conceded early in the second half, but, ultimately, it feels like they missed a trick by not being braver on attack. Definitely two points that got away.
Full Match Highlights