Warrior Nation have reached Base Camp. And it is spectacular up here. Even better than I remember. Those final few steps, travelled over 80 minutes against Penrith, were simply breathtaking. Emotions ran wild: high-fives, fist pumps. Dancing, too. And, as it became clear that we were all but there, a gentle trickle of tears escaped from my eyes. Although we have been here before, the journey back has not been easy. There was much disappointment along the path we travelled, an arduous climb that took much longer than we could have ever imagined. In many ways, that has made it even more satisfying this time around.
So, now that we have arrived, it is time to celebrate. Time to sup on a cold beverage in between mouthfuls of dal bhat. Time to request an extra pickle or two, perhaps. To look around the room and delight in the smiling faces, the sense of achievement that emanates from the party. To realise that you, too, are smiling. Grinning, in fact, from ear to ear. Most of all, it is time to honour a man who has given his all to the journey — the man they call Juju.
And, after Friday night’s festivities, you might like to find a quiet spot alone, surrounded by the silence of the mountains, to think about how far we’ve come. Remember the sacrifices it has taken to get here — think about how many men have been lost along the way. But the ups, the downs and all those experiences in between have led us to this moment, to this time when all is good in the world once again. Take a moment to appreciate that, because we will not be here for long, no matter what happens next.
In one week’s time, the celebration will be over. As one journey comes to its conclusion, a new one begins; one much more treacherous but with even greater reward waiting for those with the courage to claim it. If you think it feels good here at Base Camp, imagine how much better it feels to scale higher and higher up the mountain.
So, along with seven other parties, we will leave Base Camp with our eyes on the summit. For some, the majesty of the view may prove overwhelming. Others may find the path too steep, decide they aren’t ready for the challenges ahead and turn around. It’s never clear when altitude sickness may strike; sometimes you don’t know until your nose starts to bleed and it’s time to descend.
This weekend, we will jostle for position on the starting grid. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter who is first to depart. What matters above all else is who will climb the highest, and who will be the last to come down. So, as we take those first few steps towards the summit, more than ever we must remember that the challenge is not, and has never been, the other climbers. No, the challenge is the mountain itself. Once we realise that, anything is possible.
SET OF SIX
1) Enjoy this moment. It’s been a long time coming, Warrior Nation, so enjoy this moment. We’re in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and with one week to spare! So turn up in numbers against Canberra, and bring your voice. If you’re watching on TV from home or the pub, make sure we can still hear you at the ground. For one week we can forget about the pressures of sudden-death football and put the frustrations of the past seven years behind us. Shout loud and shout proud, you never know how long it might take to get back here again.
2) Full house for Juju. If celebrating a finals berth isn’t enough to get Warrior Nation excited, there’s the added bonus of being able to appreciate everything Simon Mannering has done for the club without any other distractions. Friday night should, and will be, all about Mannering. The tributes will come from all corners, no doubt, and the applause he’ll receive from the Mt Smart faithful is likely to bring a tear to many eyes around the ground. I could continue to write pages and pages of praise for the man they call Juju, but in reality what needs to be said is very simple. He’s an absolute legend, the epitome of everything a Warrior should stand for, and he’ll be sorely missed. Thank you, Simon.
3) What an excellent performance. On Friday night, the Warriors were 8–0 ahead before the Panthers had a hit-up, and went on with the job. They played with the kind of energy and effort that they’ll need come playoff time, and sent a warning shot to the rest of the competition. It’s no secret that maintaining that level week after week has been the Warriors’ biggest problem in recent times, but if the men from Mt Smart are on, look out NRL.
4) Quiet Roger, welcome back Tohu. It seems unfair to suggest Roger Tuivasa-Sheck had a quiet game because he only ran for 154 metres, but in reality it’s a credit to just how good he’s been in 2018. It was particularly encouraging that the Warriors could produce such an excellent performance, against a Top 8 side, without Roger having a large impact on the match. One key reason for that was the return of Tohu Harris, who immediately showed everyone in Warrior Nation what we’ve been missing. Within 10 minutes, he had 5 hit-ups, eventually leading the run metres despite getting a breather for the final 12 minutes. In addition to that energy, he created space for Shaun Johnson and David Fusitu’a to run riot on attack, and played a big part in shutting down the Panthers’ most damaging weapon in Viliame Kikau. If the Warriors go deep in the finals, expect Tohu Harris to play a massive role in that run.
5) Costly 5 minutes. In what was an otherwise excellent performance, the Warriors took the foot off the gas as the match approached the final whistle and the Panthers made them pay with two tries in 5 minutes. At one point it looked like the men from Mt Smart might win by a big enough margin to put themselves ahead of the Panthers on points differential, but instead the margin remains 30. Of course, so many things could all change again this weekend, but with points differential likely to be so crucial in determining the final seedings, let’s hope those two tries don’t cost Warrior Nation a home game in Week 1 of the finals.
6) Don’t sleep on the Raiders. With all the pressure off this week, and the focus quite rightly on honouring celebrating Simon Mannering’s 300th game, it would be easy to feel like the Warriors just have to show up to add another two points to their total. But let’s not forget this Raiders side has beaten the Roosters and the Rabbitohs in the past two weeks. With everything to play for, both on and off the field, it’s crucial that the men from Mt Smart play like their lives are on the line. Who knows, if all goes well we might be back in Penrose the following week.
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS