It was an emotional week in Warrior Nation. Embarrassment in Melbourne, injuries, controversy off the field and massive changes to the game-day lineup. The atmosphere surrounding the club took a hit, social media trolls were baying for blood and the media’s head exploded.
However, what resulted was perhaps the most satisfying two hours I have ever spent at Mt Smart.
Maybe it’s recency bias, but I’m really struggling to think of a performance I’m prouder of as a Warriors fan. There’s been plenty of games more exciting or more meaningful in the context of the overall competition but, as Shaun Johnson pointed to the posts with three minutes to go and the standing ovation began, I could feel the lump in my throat, the tears of joy welling up in the corner of my eyes.
As I stood there, clapping louder than ever before, my hands raised above my head in triumph, I hoped that moment would never end, hoped the entire crowd would stay standing for the final three minutes of the game, to join together to applaud the effort, to show our support and appreciation for the way this unlikely bunch were able to restore our faith after the week from hell.
I couldn’t have been prouder of the young, inexperienced players who came in and gave it everything. I was proud, too, of the leaders — Ryan Hoffman, Shaun Johnson, Jacob Lillyman and Issac Luke — who were noticeably vocal and energised. And the other 12,751 people who turned up to Mt Smart Stadium — what an effort from them. The smallest crowd of the year was the loudest and most positive I’ve heard for some time. Maybe it was because our expectations had been lowered, because we turned up hoping for the best but fearing the worst? We wanted a response, but it felt like winning was secondary — there were more important things to worry about than two competition points. We came hoping to witness desire, passion, heart. We wanted the players to care as much about the jersey as we do, to display the same pride that we feel as we slip it over our head on game day.
There was a moment at the end of the first half that really stood out. As Ryan Hoffman got to the sideline, he stopped and turned to face his team, then applauded and encouraged each and every one of his fellow soldiers as they left the field. It was leadership at its very best, a moment that inspired Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke to do the same once they arrived. Perhaps it’s just a small thing but it felt like a seismic shift, a signal that we were all in this together, that this was a team who supported one another, a group that stood as one, and in doing so could achieve anything.
After watching the replay, I get the sense that this was a game you didn’t experience fully unless you were at the ground. It wasn’t the highest-quality match by any means, but there was something about being there that felt special, like something truly wonderful was taking place, over and above the hit-ups and tackles and tries. Adversity brought this group closer instead of tearing it apart, and that’s something to be celebrated, something they can all be very proud of. Whether that transformation is permanent, only time will tell . . .
SET OF SIX
1) You could sense the attitude change from the stands, but it wasn’t until I heard all the after-match comments that I realised the toll this week has taken on the players. From the images of Manu Vatuvei and Konrad Hurrell in tears at the end of the NSW Cup game, to Jacob Lillyman saying it was one of the toughest weeks of his career and Ryan Hoffman’s ‘line in the sand’, every Warrior spoke with passion and displayed emotion rarely caught on camera. This is a different Warriors club than we all knew before Anzac Day.
2) But how long will it last? Riding emotion is one thing, but can they replicate that passion and desire week after week?
3) And what about the six naughty boys? Has this created a rift within the squad? Between those players and the coaching staff? Should they be picked for the next match? Or should they stick with the replacement players, who all stood up when it mattered most? Is Konrad Hurrell’s Warriors’ career over? This next Warriors’ lineup has to be one of the most eagerly anticipated in the club’s history.
4) Roger Tuivasa-Who? What a performance from David Fusitu’a. He ran for 164 metres, saved at least three tries and threatened to bust the defensive line on almost every carry. Does he stay at fullback once Tui Lolohea returns? If so and Lolohea goes to the halves, what about Thomas Leuluai? Back to the bench? But what about Jazz Tevaga? So many questions in almost every position.
5) Andrew McFadden — ‘the best young coach in the game’. After all the criticism directed at McFadden during the week, now he looks like a genius. Whatever your thoughts about his ability as a coach, it’s hard to argue he’s lost the support of the dressing room (Konrad Hurrell’s mysterious re-tweet aside). Jacob Lillyman called him the best young coach in the game, while almost everyone else interviewed made a point to mention their support for Cappy. If McFadden doesn’t have the respect of the playing group, then maybe Shaun Johnson isn’t the only Warrior who should be on Shortland Street.
6) Sometimes in life you get rewarded for effort. It was far from a vintage performance from the Warriors but, after 3213 days without a win against the Dragons, it was finally our day. The men from Mt Smart coughed up possession at their own end, were on the right end of some 50–50 bunker decisions (does anyone know how the obstruction rule will be officiated from game-to-game?) and got the bounce of the ball at crucial times. They’ll need to improve in order to beat Penrith, but hopefully they’ve learned that sometimes attitude is more valuable than talent.
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS