Thoughts and talking points from a night destined to go down in Warriors folklore.
The Warriors’ 20-12 defeat of the Dragons was one of the club’s gutsiest and toughest ever by any measure. But considering the adversity they faced before and during the top-of-the-table blockbuster, it was downright heroic.
Heading into a showdown against the unbeaten Saints, their bogey team, off a flat showing against the Broncos, having Shaun Johnson and Sol Kata ruled out the day before the game, losing champion back-rower Tohu Harris to head injury midway through the first half, Blake Green spending 10 minutes in the sin-bin, receiving just 41 percent possession and getting caned 13-5 in the penalty count – it would have been a moral victory for the Warriors to finish within 10 points of the in-form visitors.
But they led for 77 minutes and got the two points anyway to reclaim a share of the premiership lead.
The Warriors’ ability to make the most of their rare attacking chances – while repelling the Dragons countless times at the other end – was ultimately the difference.
Another season-defining effort in what is shaping as a franchise-defining season.
The 38-11 missed tackle count in favour of St George Illawarra doesn’t make for pretty reading for the Warriors, but it also doesn’t tell the story of the Warriors’ amazing goal-line resilience and incredible scramble defence.
The Dragons’ attack was in good touch – Ben Hunt in particular – but the Warriors’ effort upon effort, composure and willingness to make up for their teammates’ misses restricted the NRL’s most potent offence to just two tries.
Fullback sensation Matt Dufty was shut down brilliantly, providing the blueprint for the 14 other NRL sides, while Anthony Gelling did a fantastic job on in-form centre Euan Aitken. Then there was the usual workhorse displays from Mannering, Tevaga, Luke, Blair and co.
If you produce those kinds of defensive displays against teams of the Dragons’ ilk in September, you win premierships.
Issac Luke’s transformation is shaping up to be one of the great career renaissances. Nothing short of outstanding in every game this season, Hawera’s finest took it to another level against the Dragons with an electric dummy-half display that culminated in a stunning 40/20 and a vital try in the space of two minutes.
Luke was under immense pressure coming into 2018 after two subpar campaigns, with Nathaniel Roache, Sam Cook and a couple of other knocking on the door for a No.9 opportunity. Now you wouldn’t swap the soon-to-be 31-year-old for any hooker in the comp – and I’m sure whoever takes over as Kiwis coach will be feeling exactly the same way.
Brad Fittler would have buried his head in his hands as Luke comprehensively outplayed NSW Origin candidate Cameron McInnes.
Issac Luke was head and shoulders above everyone tonight
— Mesut Hözil (@MesutHozil) April 20, 2018
How blessed are the Warriors to have a back-up half of Mason Lino’s class? An underrated ball-runner, his early solo try was scintillating and he barely put a foot wrong thereafter. With some clubs struggling in the halves it’s hard to see the Warriors hanging onto Lino beyond this season – or even beyond June 30.
Meanwhile, if the Kiwis somehow overlook Benji Marshall again for the Denver Test, Lino genuinely shapes as the best option to partner club-mate Shaun Johnson in the halves for New Zealand.
Then there’s Anthony Gelling, who we mercilessly bagged after his clumsy cameo against the Broncos. The former Wigan cult hero could hardly have hoped for a more impressive run-on debut. He scored a great try and ran strongly all night, but it was his work in defence that really caught the eye.
Happy for him to start any day of the week – like, say, next Wednesday, when he is likely to mark up against the game’s premier centre, Will Chambers.
Oh captain, my captain
McMillan, Churchill, Barnes, Langlands, Lockyer, Minichiello…Tuivasa-Sheck?
After a brutal introduction to first grade captaincy in 2017, the Warriors No.1 is rapidly developing into an outstanding skipper from fullback – a position where only the very best thrive in the leadership role.
He’s the NRL’s form fullback, replicating his 2015 breakout year but adding toughness and intelligence, but his ever-increasing confidence with the captaincy on his shoulders is just as integral to the Warriors’ unprecedented charge. Call off the search – RTS is the only option to be the Kiwis’ new captain.
One for you rugby league history geeks: Sydney Roosters great Anthony Minichiello (2013) is the only player to captain a grand final-winning team from fullback.
The five-star deputising performances from Lino and Gelling aside, the Warriors’ win again highlighted the club’s extraordinary quality of depth.
Albert Vete capitalised on Leivaha Pulu’s injury to make his first NRL appearance since Round 17 last year, while Isaiah Papali’i only got the late call-up when Gelling moved into the starting line-up. Both were superb.
It’s almost an afterthought that the club’s No.1 front-rower, James Gavet, is still out with a back injury, and Gerard Beale and Blake Ayshford are still to come into the backline mix for the first time in 2018. Then there’s the likes of Ligi Sao, Chris Satae and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad that couldn’t force their way into the 17 last night.
Stephen Kearney has some tough calls to make when he finally has a fully-fit squad – and the Warriors’ InTrust Super Premiership opposition will bear the brunt of the club’s squad strength.
That one was for you, Edna
The Warriors’ week was tinged with sadness after their oldest and one of their most beloved members, Edna Burnett, passed away at the age of 96.
The club honoured Edna before the match, while the team wore black armbands – and paid the ultimate tribute with one their greatest-ever performances.
It was a nice touch from Mason Lino to make special mention of Edna during his post-match TV interview. RIP.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) April 19, 2018