Thoughts and talking points from the Warriors’ double-header domination of the Cowboys.
Rising to the occasion
The biggest Mount Smart crowd in more than a decade, the hype of their watershed start to the season, a desperate opponent – this was a danger game for the Warriors, and one they would have crumbled in previously.
But the Warriors handled the hoopla and used the electric atmosphere to their advantage to salute the 25,000-plus turnout with a fitting 22-12 victory.
There were too many piggy-back penalties and errors coming out of their own end and it was a touch frustrating they weren’t able to score a try in the second half, but the Warriors were relentless and brutal on both sides of the ball.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the win was the period after the Cowboys scored their second try to create a nervy 20-12 scoreline. The Warriors ramped up their intensity and dominated territory and possession until the final whistle to comfortably close it out.
Where Warriors sides of old would have capitulated – particularly up against a team boasting the class of Thurston and Morgan – the 2018 version never looked like losing.
Hell of a head-start
Yes, it’s early days and we can’t afford to get ahead of ourselves, but 5-0 start is an almighty foundation to build a campaign on.
To put the Warriors’ 2018 flyer in perspective, only once previously has the club won even four of their first five games – the 2003 season where they eventually finished sixth and reached the prelim final stage.
They are destined to endure a couple of troughs through the course of an arduous regular season, but with several expected contenders floundering so far, the Warriors have put themselves in the box-seat for a top-four tilt.
The Dragons and Warriors became just the fifth and sixth teams in the last decade to open a season with five straight wins. The sides are just a week away from a top-of-the-table showdown to decide who goes 7-0 – and if you predicted that before the premiership kicked off, you are almost certainly some sort of witch or shaman.
No.7 with a bullet
‘It’s Blake Green’s team now.’ ‘The Warriors have finally got someone who can organise and steer the team around.’ ‘Johnson’s never had a great kicking game.’ And the coup de grace: ‘The Warriors might actually be better without Johnson.’
This was the theme of Paul Kent’s rhetoric on NRL360 during the week, painting Shaun Johnson as erratic livewire who is freakishly talented but too mentally fragile to cope with the demands of running an NRL team. Good for a line-break and the odd piece of ball-playing magic but not much else.
The NRL360 team highlighted a shift in who they believe is truly steering the @NZWarriors ship after Blake Green inspired a stunning upset of the Roosters, the club's first win without Shaun Johnson since 2014. #WarriorNation #ThisWarriorsLife #NRL360 https://t.co/AECPJgae2F
— This Warriors Life (@thiswarriorslyf) April 2, 2018
Johnson played like he took Kent’s underselling of his abilities personally, controlling the game magnificently against the Cowboys.
He did the lion’s share of the kicking and did it brilliantly, drilling a 40/20 and coming up with the right option at every turn. Decisive and composed. Johnson also defended tough and produced a breath-taking try-assist to keep the highlight-hungry masses sated.
That pass from Shaun Johnson was absolutely filthy, goddamn
— Random Footy Facts (@footyfacts37) April 7, 2018
Blake Green has been a fantastic foil for Johnson, but he took a back-seat against the Cowboys. The new pairing have an excellent balance already and Green is shrewd enough to know when he needs to take the reins and when to play a secondary role.
But it’s still Johnson’s team as much as it is anyone else’s.
Ken you believe it?
At the start of the year I had Gerard Beale and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad or maybe Blake Ayshford and Beale cemented in the Warriors’ three-quarter line by mid-season, with Sol Kata and Ken Maumalo playing out the year in the ISP.
But the customarily, shall we say ‘variable’, left-side combination of Kata and Maumalo has been a revelation so far in 2018, eliminating the errors and defensive bungles that littered last year’s campaign.
Kata has shown previously that he can be a top-shelf centre (he was the Warriors’ best player in 2016, despite the club falling into their default position of giving the official gong to Simon Mannering) but Maumalo’s metamorphosis has been astonishing.
Big Ken has taken the mantle of the game’s most effective metre-eating winger once occupied by his mentor Manu, rupturing the defence with every kick-return and earning penalties with his quick play-the-balls.
Lord knows he's copped it in the past, so credit where it's due – Ken Maumalo has been absolutely stellar tonight
— Nick Campton (@campo37) April 7, 2018
Maumalo’s 11 tries from 46 games strike-rate is still a bugbear, but he produced an outstanding finish to open the Warriors’ account against the Cowboys (after a barnstorming Kata run). Kyle Feldt got outside him for a try – only the third scored by his opposing wingers this year – but he also came up with a great try-saver on Feldt.
If Jordan Rapana has one Kiwis wing spot stitched up and David Fusitu’a sticks with Tonga, I’d have Maumalo even with Jason Nightingale and well ahead of Dallin Watene-Zeleniak for a spot on the left flank in the Denver Test.
— NRL (@NRL) April 7, 2018
Welcome back ‘Dewey’
Simon Mannering spoke in the lead-up to his first outing of the season of his worry about potentially upsetting the Warriors pack’s rhythm, having watched their 4-0 run from the sidelines.
His concerns were 100 percent unfounded.
Mannering’s return simply adds yet another stellar element to a burgeoning Warriors outfit. Coming off the bench, he got through a ton of work in 60 minutes of game-time, slotting back into the side seamlessly. Mannering was enthusiastic in attack and came up with some crucial tackles near the Warriors’ line.
It is fantastic to see Simon Mannering back! If he plays in every game for the rest of the season, Mannering will bring up game 300 in the Warriors final regular season match against the Canberra Raiders! #NRLWarriorsCowboys
— Ben Francis (@BenFrancis136) April 7, 2018
But Stephen Kearney now has a decision to make: Mannering has to start, so who drops back to the bench? Does he shift Adam Blair from the No.13 – where he has been much more effective in the past fortnight – back to the front-row, with Bunty Afoa or Agnatius Paasi moving to the interchange? Could Mannering start on the edge in the place of Leivaha Pulu?
A tough call, but an unmistakably good position for the coach to be in.
Fus chases history
He didn’t have to do a hell of a lot except be in the right place, but David Fusitu’a’s third double of the season has put him two clear of the NRL tryscoring field on seven (Canterbury’s Josh Morris is outright second on five).
No Warriors player has scored more than 17 tries in the last seven seasons; barring injury, Fusitu’a should cruise past that mark. He’s also well on track to become the first player since Manu Vatuvei in 2010 to post up a 20-try year for the Warriors.
From there, it’s only another three meat pies to Francis Meli’s club record of 23, set in the 2003 season.
Equally prestigious, Fusitu’a has put himself in the frame to become the first Warriors player ever to top the premiership’s tryscoring charts.
Meli was second in 2003, two behind Penrith fullback Rhys Wesser, while Vatuvei’s 2010 tally was just one behind co-leaders Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Akuila Uate. Sean Hoppe’s long-standing club record of 19 tries in the Warriors’ foundation season placed him third behind Manly duo Steve Menzies (22) and John Hopoate (21).
— #RugbyTonga (@RugbyTON_) April 7, 2018
— #RugbyTonga (@RugbyTON_) April 7, 2018
Kiwi legend Benji Marshall ensured it would be a double-header to remember before the Warriors even took the field, slotting the match-winning field goal with five minutes left as Wests Tigers edged Melbourne 11-10.
It was a rare opportunity for the Mount Smart faithful to revel in Benji’s heroics without it being at the expense of their Warriors.
— NRL (@NRL) April 7, 2018
At the Tigers’ press conference I got the chance to ask Marshall if he ever thought he’d get the chance to have a moment like that in New Zealand again, and to ask Ivan Cleary if he enjoyed having Benji on his side at the ground after the five-eighth wizard singlehandedly led the Tigers back from 18 points down to beat the Cleary-coached Warriors in a famous/infamous 2011 clash.
It was the perfect entrée for the former Warrior-stacked Tigers’ Round 9 visit to Mount Smart.