Never in Doubt

The NRL season is a long and winding road. Sometimes that’s easy to forget.

Especially during those first few months, we tend to overreact, we’re quick to judge, quick to jump to conclusions. Too often we’re looking far off into the distance, trying to predict where we might end up, without remembering that everything can change in just a few days. It’s so easy to read too much into one result, so tempting to think we know what’s about to happen next. At times we’re almost certain we know what’s around the next corner, or even where our final destination will be, but it soon becomes clear that no matter where we’re going, how we get there is never set in stone.

Heading into Round 1, 2016, almost everyone had climbed aboard the Warriors bandwagon. A Top 4 finish they said. Playoffs for sure.

When things didn’t go to plan, no one could explain why. Not enough time to gel, maybe? A bit of luck? Was it the coach? Fitness? Attitude? All of the above? But then things started to turn around. Soon they were back on track.

The journey zigged and zagged, climbed over hills and sunk deep into valleys. One week we were celebrating a win at the Cake Tin, the next we were huddled together under the posts at AAMI Park, wondering how the road took such a sharp turn and how we missed all the signs. How quickly the club went from title contender to laughing stock, from crisis to competition dark horse, from pill-poppers to big boppers. One month there were calls for Shaun Johnson’s head, the next we marvelled at his magnificence and wondered where we might be without him, even on one leg.

But perhaps the greatest sign of how far we have travelled during this year’s version of our annual NRL pilgrimage— not just from the catastrophic first 40 minutes of the season to where we are now, but also from that dark day at AAMI Park, to the rough night at Yarrow Stadium, to the heart-warming win against the Dragons and all the other stops along the way — is that Saturday night’s victory against the Titans was never in doubt.

It didn’t matter that Josh Hoffman ran the length of the field to touchdown before some fans had even reached their seats. Nor did it matter that the Warriors were noticeably flat during the first half, inexplicably so given the occasion (#Mannering250) and the opportunity (a spot in the Top 8) at stake. None of that mattered because the men from Mt Smart were always going to win, always going to be too strong in the end.

While we may not know quite where this road will take us, we know where we have come from and the corner around which we have turned. While there was a time when the crew steering this ship could not be trusted, there’s now no danger that this Warriors side could lose to an under-strength Titans side. In fact, those days seem so far behind us now that they’re hard to make out in the rear-view mirror.

That’s not to say we didn’t express disappointment at halftime, didn’t lament the lack of enthusiasm and the need to create more opportunities on attack. Stern words were used. Frustration filled the air. But, as we spoke, it soon became clear that Brian had won a BBQ and that was yet another reminder that nothing bad would come of this day, that nothing bad could come of this day, because not only was it Simon Mannering’s big day, but it was also a special day for Brian, a special day for us all in many ways, because there was something for all of us in his win — one for the good guys — and we knew then with even more certainty that the Warriors would find a way to get the two points. It mattered little that they were below their best.

In the minutes that passed between Brian’s big win and the beginning of the second half, a great sense of calm surrounded us, so much so that we almost didn’t notice the game beyond the fog of serenity, hardly broke a sweat as the match meandered along for quite some time, until eventually the men from Mt Smart clawed their way to the lead. As the clock ticked down on a largely uneventful performance, some Shaun Johnson magic lifted us out of our seats, before Bodene Thompson gave us another reason to wave our Mannering face masks with glee. It was another win for the good guys, most especially Simon Mannering, before we pull into the rest stop for a short break.

And while Saturday’s outcome was never in doubt, who can say what’s around that next corner? Where will this journey end?

SET OF SIX

1) It was two points in the bag, but should we be concerned by that performance? For the second straight home game, the Warriors lost the ruck, were arguably out-enthused in the forwards and spent long periods of the game at a level well below their best.

But they still won.

Is it a bad sign to start so flat against very beatable opposition? Any concern at all that the men from Mt Smart left it so late to assert their dominance? Or is it a great sign that they can hang in there while they’re not playing well, that the defence has reached a point where they can hold on long enough for those moments of attacking brilliance to come to the forefront and secure the win? I can’t quite decide where I stand, other than to say that I’d take an ugly win over a beautiful loss any day of the week.

2) Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, it’s fair to suggest the Warriors will need an improved effort from the forward pack as the season moves towards the business end. For much of that match, the Warriors struggled to work themselves into attacking positions. They were regularly driven back in the tackle and generated very few quick play-the-balls. It was enough to beat a weakened opposition who were down to 15 fit players by the 46-minute mark, but that performance won’t be good enough every week.

3) Bodene Thompson was superb. Last week we highlighted Thompson’s footwork, and his all-around play was excellent again this week. In particular, his emergence as an attacking threat on the edge is really starting to create opportunities for both himself and Shaun Johnson to exploit, plus it also ensures that the Warriors have threatening options on both sides of the field, when for much of the early part of the season the attack was directed towards Solomone Kata’s edge.

4) The production line continues. Young Warriors are making a name for themselves this year. Albert Vete, Sam Lisone and Charlie Gubb have become first-grade regulars, while the likes of Toafofoa Sipley and Jazz Tevaga have made encouraging starts to their careers in limited opportunities. On Saturday night, Bunty Afoa added his name to that list. His debut wasn’t particularly eye-catching, but a solid, composed performance from a 19-year-old given a late call-up to the top level is impressive in itself. Can the club provide enough opportunities to retain all this young talent?

5) Take a bow Agnatius Paasi. It wasn’t that long ago that Agnatius Paasi was toiling away for the Auckland Vulcans in the NSW Cup, unable to crack the Warriors NRL side. Now, he’s a key member of the Titans, and was arguably their most threatening attacking weapon at the weekend. Top work Agnatius.

6) The season starts now. The Warriors have worked their way into the Top 8, basically sitting in seventh position if you exclude Parramatta from the conversation. They hold their fate in their own hands and the run to the finals looks encouraging. Many of the sides below look to be falling away. The bye comes at a great time, to rest and recover before eight weeks that will define their season. Signs point to a playoff spot, but can the Warriors do enough to secure a knockout game at Mt Smart?

FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS

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