The Warriors have spent the last 10 weeks in tight tussles, clawing their way back into contention to the point where they now hold their own destiny in their hands. A first taste of finals footy since 2011 is within touching distance — three home wins against sides below them on the ladder will do it — but nothing ever comes easy in the NRL. With the Panthers, Tigers and Titans all within a point of the men from Mt Smart, there’s no room for complacency in the race for those last few playoff spots.
This week, it’s the Bunnies who hop over the Tasman Sea in search of their first win since Round 11. To say 2016 has been a disappointment for Souths is an understatement, especially after the much publicised return of Sam Burgess, as the club faces up to the reality of a year without finals football for the first time since the Warriors were in the Grand Final. It feels risky to underestimate any side featuring names like Burgess, Inglis and Reynolds, but, given they arrive in Penrose with very little to play for other than pride, if they get behind on the scoreboard early, there’s a chance heads could drop very quickly.
For the Warriors, somewhat surprisingly it has been their defence that has got them back into the playoff picture. Their goal line looks as secure as it has done for years, and there’s been a clear lift in both the effort and the desire on that side of the football since the early part of the season. In contrast, at times it’s been the attack that has struggled for fluency, despite the go-forward generated by the outside backs and the middle forwards. The men from Mt Smart have had no problem marching into the opposition 20, but once there they’ve looked rather predictable and have relied heavily on slices of individual brilliance to get them across the line.
They’re not racking up many big scores, but there have been encouraging signs that this Warriors outfit is closer to putting it all together than statistics might suggest. The edges look particularly dangerous, the young forwards are growing in confidence every week and the halves are forcing repeat sets. The men from Mt Smart are creating plenty of chances but just lacking that final spark to bust through the line. Could this be the week the Warriors break off the shackles and get that scoreboard working overtime?
While there’s no room for slip ups, these are the kind of games that Warrior Nation should be looking forward to. At home, in front of a big crowd, against a side low on confidence, with an opportunity to continue their march towards the playoffs. It’s a game that matters, at the business end of the season, where there should be no shortage of motivation for the home side. All Warriors fans know that opportunities to play finals footy don’t come around every year — you have to grab them when you can.
It’s a night where the pessimists among us could imagine images of crushed dreams and high hopes that come crashing down, but recent performances don’t suggest a need for concern. In a perfect world, Saturday night will be a stress-free night of celebration, a night to demonstrate how well this Warriors side is playing, an opportunity to assert their dominance over weaker opposition. It’s nights like these you can put the whole competition on notice, a night where these men from Mt Smart can show the entire NRL community that they’re not just in the Top 8 to make up the numbers, that they are there to hold the trophy aloft come October. Which will it be Warrior Nation? Is Saturday the night the Warriors break out?
New Zealand Warriors v South Sydney Rabbitohs, Mt Smart Stadium, Saturday 13 August 2016
NYC kick off: 5:15pm (NZ time)
NRL kick off: 7:30pm (NZ time)
We wind the clock back to 2012 for a high-scoring win for the men from Mt Smart. Will there be points again on Saturday night?
Warriors: 1 Tuimoala Lolohea 2 Ken Maumalo 3 David Fusitu’a 4 Solomone Kata 5 Manu Vatuvei 6 Thomas Leuluai 7 Shaun Johnson 8 Jacob Lillyman 9 Jazz Tevaga 10 Albert Vete 11 Bodene Thompson 12 Ryan Hoffman (c) 13 Simon Mannering Interchange: 14 Nathaniel Roache 15 Sam Lisone 16 Ben Matulino 17 Blake Ayshford 18 Bunty Afoa
Rabbitohs: 1. Greg Inglis 2. Alex Johnston 3. Hymel Hunt 4. Aaron Gray 5. Joe Burgess 6. Cody Walker 7. Adam Reynolds 8. Thomas Burgess 9. Damien Cook 10. Zane Musgrove 11. John Sutton 12. Kyle Turner 13. Sam Burgess. Interchange: 14. Jason Clark 15. Jack Gosiewski 16. Angus Crichton 17. George Burgess
No changes expected to either side.