You are playing at home, against a team in the same spot on the ladder, with your season on the line. I would have thought that in itself would be enough motivation to leave everything on the paddock.
If that doesn’t get the competitive juices flowing, let’s throw in the fact that last time you played this team, they came back from 28–6 down at halftime to beat you. And then for good measure, let’s rule out their best player, then have their second-best player leave the field with an injury after 27 minutes. Does this sound like an opportunity you want to grab with both hands?
How about if one of the club’s most-loved players of all time was departing the next day, and the entire evening was meant to be a celebration of his achievements, an occasion designed to show him how much he means to you, to the club, to your team, to the fans and to his community. Surely there’s no way anyone could come in and out-enthuse you on a night like this. Of all nights, this is the one when you will give everything for the jersey and for your friend — the one they call The Beast.
And if, after you’ve taken all of those things into account, you are still struggling to get your head in the game, how about if you witness a man who built a career around taking the toughest tackle of every set, around throwing himself into the defensive line with everything he had, set after set, game after game, walk across the field one last time with tears in his eyes? If it was enough to make a humble fan turn his face away from his friends to hide the emotion, imagine how inspirational that would have been if Manu Vatuvei was your teammate, your friend, your brother.
If you witnessed that, and thought about the importance of this night for all of the reasons above, you couldn’t help but be emotional, couldn’t help but be honoured to be there for this special occasion, couldn’t help but be motivated to show your brother what he means to you.
I could understand if the emotion got the better of you, if you came out too aggressive, too passionate, and were ultimately defeated by a rush of blood to the head, or an error-filled display born out of trying too hard. Sometimes playing on emotion can have a negative effect. Sometimes it makes people perform worse. That’s fair enough. But I simply can’t understand how anyone in a Warriors jumper could walk out on that field and come up against an opposition who wanted it more than them. That concept just does not compute in my brain. It’s not something I’m able to process. It doesn’t even seem possible. Actually incapable of happening.
Throughout almost every moment since that game finished, aside from the sad realisation that I will never again see Manu Vatuvei score another try in a Warriors jumper, I’ve been asking myself one question: Was that the most disappointing night I’ve ever had at Mt Smart Stadium?
The more I think about it, the more I search into those deep dark pockets of my memory, the more certain I am that it was. I had expected it to be the most memorable night of the season. A night filled with pride and nostalgia, and an overwhelming sense that Warrior Nation was a place we could all be proud of. Instead, I find myself wanting to banish the entire day from my memory as soon as possible.
While the Warriors managed to score 22 points, and for a while there it looked like they might even win — if Ligi Sao had gathered the ball cleanly from Issac Luke’s chip through the line, in all likelihood they would have won — but for the majority of that game they showed a fraction of the energy and desire that Penrith displayed. In the end, that was the difference. Not Shaun Johnson’s injury, not because Penrith was more skilful or more talented than the Warriors, but because the Panthers wanted it more. When the going got tough, they were the team that was more desperate to secure the win.
Despite all this negativity, all this disappointment. I’m not angry. I don’t want the Warriors to fire the coach, sack the CEO or drop all the players to reserve grade. That wouldn’t give me an ounce of pleasure. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m just sad. It’s really as simple as that.
I’m sad that another season that promised so much is all but over with seven games still to play. I’m sad that Manu Vatuvei has left the club. And I’m sad that he didn’t go out the way he deserved. This was meant to be a night for the entire population of Warrior Nation to look back on fondly, for Manu Vatuvei and his friends and family to think about and smile about for years to come. It was a night that was supposed to signify everything positive about the organisation, but instead opened the curtain even further to reveal its most glaring weakness — that the level of pride in this Warriors jumper has reached an all-time low.