Searching For a Silver Lining

Wow. Didn’t see that coming. A Warriors side that had been playing well, had been defensively sound, who were in a tight tussle for the playoffs, at home, against a side that had lost 9 matches in a row — this was two points in the bag. A stress-free night where the 17,000-plus in attendance could start the party early. The kind of fixture where the men from Mt Smart could send a message, could show the rest of the NRL that they were a side capable of winning this competition. The kind of fixture where it felt like even a slightly sub-par performance might still be enough to win.

It’s not possible to have been more wrong.

In front of the biggest Mt Smart crowd since 2014, the Warriors continued the frustrating trend of falling flat every time the fans start to believe again. For the umpteenth year in a row, the men from Mt Smart now find themselves in danger of missing out on the playoffs after mixing an impressive run through the Origin period with a slow start and a sloppy finish.

What makes this particular performance especially frustrating is that it’s so hard to fathom quite how it happened. The Warriors of recent weeks, the Warriors who were marching towards the finals, prided themselves on attitude, on staying composed when it looked like the opposition was about to pull away, and on turning up tackle after tackle until the final whistle sounded. They were a side who could compete with anyone. They had been through the tough times, and had come out the other side. The embarrassments in Melbourne and Taranaki were distant memories. A thing of the past.

Eight minutes into Saturday’s match, as Solomone Kata dived over to score from dummy-half, everything was good in the world. The Warriors had controlled the territory, forced two repeat sets and capitalised with a try. Not only were they going to win, but this would be a much needed boost to the points differential column. A minute later, Bodene Thompson’s knock-on began a half-hour sequence well worthy of a place in the Warriors’ 2016 Hall of Shame. If Mt Smart Stadium was a boxing ring, the referee would have stopped the fight at halftime. The Warriors had been well and truly beaten to a pulp.

And while the second half was an improvement, the result was never in doubt. On a night that shaped as another crucial end-of-season moment, the Warriors floundered, potentially undoing ten weeks of hard work in a single half. As time ticked away, it became harder and harder to find a silver lining to take from the game, harder and harder to argue that the men from Mt Smart still deserve a chance to fight for a medal come September. Put simply, the performance wasn’t up to NRL standard.

Did they think they just had to turn up and collect the two points? Was it complacency? Has something sinister happened in the background? Is it the culture at the club? Do we blame the coach? The players? Were Souths simply too good? Or was it just a bad night at the office?

Whatever the reasons, the questions now turn to the future: How damaging is that result? Can they sweep it under the rug? Pretend it never happened? Or will it be remembered as the day the season died?

Before last week, I truly thought this Warriors side were playing with a desire and commitment capable of making 2016 a memorable one. Now, I don’t know what to think. The one thing that is clear: play like that again and there’s no coming back.

SET OF SIX

1) There were very few bright spots, but the Warriors’ left-edge fought hard all night. You’d be forgiven for thinking the entire Warriors squad were all out to dinner, but the left-edge trio of Manu Vatuvei, Solomone Kata and Ryan Hoffman at least salvaged a little pride. They were the only Warriors to make more than 100 metres, with Hoffman comfortably leading the total carries (15), and time after time they put their hands up for carries when it seemed like no one else wanted the ball. It’s hard to find positives after a game like that, but there were at least a few reminders that this left edge has the ability to break a match open in an instant.

2) They’re still not out of it. With the Cowboys stumbling against the Roosters, and also facing a few injuries, suddenly that trip to Townsville doesn’t look as intimidating as it did before the Origin series. That’s not to say it will be easy, but the Warriors have three games to right the ship. Win them all and they are playoff bound. Two wins might even do it. They’ll need to improve out of sight from what they dished up on Saturday, but they’re not dead yet.

3) Ben Matulino no show. Matulino has been a big part of the Warriors’ turnaround, but he was a notable absentee at the weekend. The Rabbits caught him dawdling back into position right on halftime, which led to the Greg Inglis try, and he only carried the ball seven times for just over 60 metres. For the Warriors to be a force in this competition, they’ll need a lot more than that from Big Ben.

4) It’s easy to bag the Warriors after a performance like that, but some credit does need to go to Souths. With nothing to play for on the competition ladder, it would have been tempting for them to come to Penrose, go through the motions and head home on the end of another hammering. Instead, they did their homework, exposed the Warriors’ weaknesses and relentlessly went after the win. They took penalty shots at goal, kicked a drop goal and were unquestionably the hungrier team on the night.

5) What happens with Tui Lolohea? There was an uproar earlier in the season when Lolohea found himself out of the starting lineup, but, after a sub-par 54 minutes on Saturday, his fullback spot is under threat once again. Whether it is all Lolohea’s fault, a lack of support or a series of tactical blunders, the South Sydney kicking game exposed a glaring weakness in the Warriors’ defensive structure. Too often, Lolohea was caught in the defensive line or was too far from the play as the Souths halves kicked in behind the line. McFadden made it clear earlier in the season that he believes Fusitu’a is a better fullback, but reinstated Lolohea after a couple of losses and public pressure. Does this poor performance give him the ammunition he needs to put Tui back on the bench?

6) Is Andrew McFadden the coach of the Warriors next year? The playoffs was said to be a minimum for Coach Cappy earlier in the season, and despite appearing to make a great deal of progress over the past two months, the loss to Souths puts that Top 8 spot in danger. If the men from Mt Smart experience an early Mad Monday for the fifth year in a row, will it be McFadden’s last in New Zealand?

FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS

Do you really want to do that to yourself?

Watch this instead.

Wasn’t that better?

If you must do it to yourself, see below, but I recommend you just watch the one above a few more times.

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