Mount Smart Stadium is brutal on a winter’s evening. It’s dark before 5pm, it’s freezing cold. You leave your members’ scarf sitting on the kitchen table at home. And, just as the game is about to kick-off, a light drizzle falls from the sky.
We’re not far past the halfway mark of the season, but when you’re on the edges of the Top 8, every game takes on greater importance. There’s a strange sense hovering over Warrior Nation that the club is back on track after consecutive wins, but every shred of confidence has an air of fragility — we’ve been through this all before, we know how quickly the air can fall out of the balloon.
The game itself struggles to provide much respite from the chill of the night. The Warriors are down 2–4 at the half, the offence looks disjointed and the crowd is quiet but restless, murmurings of discontent ripple around the ground.
The second half is much the same, a tight, dour contest, with the biggest cheers saved for infringements or mistakes by the Roosters, and, of course, for the arrival of local hero, Charlie Gubb. The Warriors kick back-to-back penalties to take the lead 6–4, but it doesn’t feel safe until a moment of magic from an otherwise quiet Shaun Johnson gets the crowd on its feet. At 12–4 with only 15 minutes remaining, the tension lifts — almost too much for a few brief moments as Isaac Liu and Shaun Kenny-Dowall just about give us a collective heart attack — but the men from Mount Smart manage to hold on for a 12–10 win. I’m not sure whether the game actually counts as entertainment, but the win provides two more competition points than we started the day with, and that’s the only thing that matters.
They say that Cs get degrees and, on Sunday night, the Warriors reinforced that cliché by scraping across the line against a Roosters side who simply can’t get it together in 2016. Had the Chooks been more patient in the key moments, the two points may well have been on their way to Sydney. The Warriors were outscored two tries to one, were out-enthused in the middle of the park and lacked fluidity on attack for the majority of the game. The most encouraging sign was that it was the type of match they would have lost had it been played only a month earlier.
But instead, aided by the Roosters’ 65 per cent completion rate, a 10–3 penalty count and a new-found sense of belief, the men from Mount Smart defended well enough to keep things close enough for long enough that a moment of brilliance put them ahead, and then continued to do just enough to keep their noses in front until the final whistle sounded.
It wasn’t pretty, but it’ll do just fine.
SET OF SIX
1) An ugly win is a good win. This victory wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as the past two from an attacking standpoint, but was just as valuable, perhaps even more so. If you read anything into the post-game comments of both captain and coach, mentally these two points may well be the most important two of the season to date. By hanging on when it seemed like they might let the W slip away, the Warriors showed us, and perhaps more importantly showed themselves, that they could win a game when they weren’t at their best, avoiding the banana skin and answering a few lingering questions in the process. They’ll need to play better to beat the Sharks next week, but if the men from Mt Smart can take care of their business at home for the rest of the season, they give themselves an opportunity to attack these tough away fixtures knowing that a loss won’t end their playoff run.
2) Don’t underestimate the impact of Thomas Leuluai’s injury. Leuluai may not be the most highly praised player in the Warriors’ squad, but the reshuffle that occurred when he left the field was less than ideal, causing David Fusitu’a, Tui Lolohea, Issac Luke and Nathaniel Roache to play out of their original position at times during the remainder of the game. Swapping around three parts of the spine was bound to cause disruption, especially when it quickly became apparent that Shaun Johnson was not travelling at 100 per cent.
3) Nathaniel Roache shifting to the wing confused me. When Roache first joined the action, he slotted in a dummy half and Issac Luke shifted out to play standoff. This seemed like the move that would impact the fewest amount of players, and one that still left the bulk of the side as named. However, at around the 25–30-minute mark, Tui Lolohea went to the halves (perhaps to try to inject a bit more life into the Warriors’ attack?), David Fusitu’a to the back, Luke returned to dummy half and Roache slid over to the wing, a position he is unaccustomed to. As a result, the left edge became a lot less threatening, making it difficult for the Warriors to attack that potential Roosters’ weakness. Would Fusitu’a have sailed over Dale Copley to score in the corner?
4) Issac Luke really stepped up. Luke copped a lot of criticism for his early season form, and it even cost him his Kiwis jumper, but he’s starting to make a huge impact within this Warriors side. His running game was excellent on Sunday and his dummy-half kicking almost always found open space, including a particularly crucial one to force a line drop-out while Ken Maumalo was in the sinbin.
5) Ken Maumalo may have been deservedly sinbinned, but he also deserves real credit for the way he bounced back and ran fearlessly at the defensive line all night. After his shaky start, which included a knock-on in an attacking situation, Maumalo ran for a match-high 183 metres (from 19 runs). What was even more impressive were the areas of the field and situations in which these runs took place, including two carries in the first set after he returned from the sinbin (which led to a Warriors penalty), then two more right at the end of the game to help get out of the danger zone. He deputised well in the Manu Vatuvei role and in doing so showed he’s certainly capable of competing at the NRL level.
6) Is it possible to get a penalty try in the NRL? Shouldn’t a foul in the act of scoring be a penalty try? The Roosters can hardly argue, given Aidan Guerra copped the same punishment for a very similar incident in the Round 5 fixture, but do the officials make that same call in the dying stages of the game? In a grand final? I really think they’ve got to start coming down harder on professional fouls. Maybe they should give teams the option of a try or the opposition gets 10 minutes in the bin? Just a thought. And, while we’re on the topic of referees, how about Jared Maxwell warning the Roosters over and over again for repeated infringements, at one point getting so upset that he told Shaun Kenny-Dowall he never wanted to speak to him again, but never producing a yellow card. No one likes an empty threat, Jared.
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS
Click here for highlights of the Warriors 12-10 win over the Roosters
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