House of Cards

On Saturday night at Pepper Stadium, it took the Warriors just forty minutes to craft a work of absolute beauty. Guided by the steady hands of Kieran Foran, they built their biggest lead of the season, stacking up try after try until the score grew to 28–6. It was a mixture of precision,

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pace and excitement that had everyone in Warrior Nation enraptured as the halftime whistle blew.

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As our minds drifted towards the potential of a record-breaking performance, it was a time to smile, a time to sit back, relax and think about a job well done. Such days are rare for those who reside in Warrior Nation. Nothing seems to come easy, with wins arising from nail-biting circumstances, with games hanging in the balance until the final moments — it’s hardly surprising that we were already celebrating with forty minutes still to play.

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But, instead of dancing the night away, what we had all thought was a stable foundation, assembled with the tightly packed bricks of confidence gained from week after week of scramble defence and pride in their tryline, that precious, unassailable lead came crashing down in less than half the time it took to build it in the first place.

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As it began to tumble, the NRL Warrior headquarters filled with a mixture of disbelief and rage.

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But as time wore on and the men from Mt Smart were barely able to muster the strength to get over the halfway line, the anger dissipated. When the last pass for Penrith’s final try floated three metres forward, I was unable even to shake a raised fist at the TV. All that remained was an uneasy feeling in my stomach and an immense sadness that lingered into Sunday and Monday.

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Warrior Nation was broken, and, as I lay crumpled on the floor in the darkness, idiots burned jerseys while eulogies were written both in the mainstream media and across the social networks. Stephen McIvor couldn’t even bear to discuss what happened.

It was a crushing way to lose, and the pain won’t subside until Friday, when hope will spring eternal once more in Hamilton. As the season wears on it, fatigue sets in and it becomes harder and harder to pick yourself up when things collapse around you. But let’s not forget: at halftime we dreamed of records being broken, and that’s exactly what we received.

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SET OF SIX

1) Where do the Warriors go from here? It’s the pressing question emerging from Saturday’s second-half performance. After five and a half games of looking like a fairly useful football team, the men from Mt Smart’s monumental collapse could potentially send the club right back to square one, or worse. From 28–6 ahead to 28–30 down in 20 minutes reads just as terribly as it was to watch, but how deep are the scars? Can the Warriors flush that 40 minutes down the toilet quickly? Or will those wounds open up again at the first hint of adversity?

2) The signs were there all along. Penrith scoring four tries in twelve minutes felt like a capitulation of monumental proportions at the time, but in truth the Warriors’ defence looked shaky all night. The Panthers marched up field easily from the opening whistle, scored a very soft try through Isaah Yeo, but couldn’t quite get things to click during the first stanza. Two David Fusitua intercepts led to two tries, and another was scored while Waqa Blake was serving 10 minutes in the sinbin. The men from Mt Smart may have held a big lead at halftime, but Penrith always looked dangerous in possession.

3) And boy did they make the most of it once they got on a roll. At halftime, the Warriors had 70% of possession. By the end of the game, it was a complete reversal, with Penrith finishing with 56% overall — meaning they were up near 80% in the second half. Almost every pass went to hand, with every kick either bouncing awkwardly for the Warriors or perfectly into the path of a Panther. It’s hard to think of a more lop-sided half of football. The video review session won’t be pretty for the men from Mt Smart, but aside from a few one-on-one misses, they might also look at it and realise that at times there was very little they could do to stop the Penrith avalanche.

4) The outside backs remain a conundrum. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was excellent once again, and Solomone Kata limped off with about 10 minutes to play. And with Manu Vatuvei all set to return before he too was ruled out with injury, it remains to be seen who is fit to play on Friday. But, regardless of who is available, the Warriors have some decisions to make about the type of player they need to fill these roles. While Nicoll-Klokstad didn’t put a foot wrong and fully deserves his place in the side, when the Warriors were camped down the danger end there’s no denying they missed the carries of Ken Maumalo and Manu Vatuvei. It’s these hard runs that often start sets on the right foot, helping to shift momentum back in their favour and giving the rest of the team a chance to take a breath. If Stephen Kearney decides to line up without both Maumalo and Vatuvei, he’ll need to come up with a better plan to replace their go-forward.

5) Without a big winger, there’s no room for Nathaniel Roache. I’ve banged this drum before, but the Warriors are wasting an interchange spot by including a hooker who barely plays more than 10 minutes a game, and it’s even more apparent without those big wingers on the park. When the Warriors needed to get out of their own end and slow the pace of the game down, they had no one capable of producing the goods. But with four forwards on the bench, you could throw on a Toafofoa Sipley or Albert Vete and instruct them to go at full intensity for a short burst to dig you out of trouble, or use them as an attacking weapon. I appreciate it leaves you vulnerable in the case of an injury, but it’s much easier to find a way to make-do when you are going forward rather than backward.

6) That was a painful, but not a killer blow. There’s no denying the nature of Saturday’s loss was soul-destroying, and that 4 wins from 10 games is not where Warrior Nation wanted to be at this point in the season. But the NRL is a tight competition. The men from Mt Smart sit just two points outside the Top 8, with back-to-back home games against a Dragons side missing Gareth Widdop and the Broncos without their Origin stars. It’s not yet time to give up hope, but the Warriors need to bounce back quickly or they’ll face another year on the outside looking in.

FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS

It might be a blessing that they’re a little blurry.

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