TWL RD 8 WRAP: HARD DAY’S KNIGHT AS WARRIORS UNRAVEL

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The pre-game consensus was that if the Warriors showed anywhere near the intensity and desire they produced in Melbourne on Anzac Day, they would comfortably account for Newcastle in a virtual must-win at Mount Smart.

But talking about the Warriors’ prospects in ‘ifs’ has always been fraught with danger.

So it proved as the Knights took advantage of the Warriors’ lack of physicality, execution and concentration to carve out a 36-18 win. It’s a devastating result for the club and its fans, negating the goodwill the undermanned Warriors’ brave AAMI Park effort garnered.

The Knights were not outstanding – but they played smart. They got on top in the middle third, kicked astutely to keep Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Ken Maumalo out of the game as much as possible and slow the game down to their pace, and took their scoring chances.

Following the return of leaders RTS and Blake Green – who had an out-and-out shocker – players who stepped up in the overachieving losses to the Storm and Souths retreated into their shells. The Warriors had more than enough chances to take the ascendancy and drew level for the first time in the 51st minute. But infuriatingly sloppy play and a lack of desperation resulted in the Knights scoring the last 18 points of the match.

The Warriors started like a team without their minds on the job – and certainly not like one with their season on the line. A weak set from the kick-off; an unimpressive first defensive set that allowed Kalyn Ponga to boot a penalty goal at the end of it; a dumb lifting penalty against Lachlan Burr in the Knights’ ensuing possession.

Continuing his recent form spike, Mitchell Pearce waltzed through for the first try on the back of Burr’s suspension-worthy indiscretion, beating the Warriors’ goal-line D with disturbing ease.

Eight-nil after six minutes.

The Knights welcomed the hosts back into the contest soon afterwards, however, giving away three penalties in quick succession.

Centre Patrick Herbert backed up last week’s mind-blowing NRL debut by steaming onto a Roger Tuivasa-Sheck pass and diving over for an emphatic Warriors response.

Newcastle restored its eight-point advantage before the 20-minute mark, Shaun Kenny-Dowall outdoing Ken Maumalo in the air with a magnificent grab to score.

With fatigue and poor last-tackle execution letting the Warriors down, the Knights pushed out to 16-6 with a 30th-minute penalty goal.

A crucial break came under the familiar guise of a quick, penalty-attracting play-the-ball from Maumalo.

Big Ken was the beneficiary a minute later, dotting down in the corner from a Tohu Harris pass after Peta Hiku batted back a super Blake Green cross-field kick.

The left-footed Chanel Harris-Tavita – who had been causing problems for the Knights’ right-side defence, suggesting the Kodi Nikorima signing has not affected him adversely – curled the conversion through beautifully from the left touchline to cut the deficit to four before halftime.

Despite Herbert herding Ponga into touch in the first set of the second half, the Knights wasted little time in resuming control after the break.

Adam Blair was pinged in front of the posts, giving Ponga a gift-wrapped chance to bang over his fifth goal.

Danger signs were springing up on both sides of the ball for the Warriors: they were getting comfortably outmuscled in the middle of the park, while their attack was woefully clunky.

But out of nothing the Warriors drew level in the 51st minute. Harris-Tavita’s slick passing gave Hiku the time and space to send Maumalo over again – the big winger’s first double in his 72-game NRL career.

The Warriors’ glaring inability to hit and stick handed the advantage back to the visitors only minutes later.

A horrible attempt from Hiku saw Sione Mata’utia power through for the Knights’ third.

But the Knights weren’t exactly playing well. They offered up ample opportunities for the Warriors to strike back – the incompetent hosts just couldn’t capitalise.

Newcastle sucked the energy out of Mount Smart Stadium in the 68th minute, Edrick Lee tapping a high ball back for Hymel Hunt to cross out wide.

If there was a hint of good fortune about that four-pointer, there was no ambiguity about electric Knights No.1 Ponga’s match-sealer with six minutes left.

Slick work from Danny Levi and Pearce saw Ponga leave outplayed opposite number Tuivasa-Sheck for dead in a sizzling 40-metre run to the try-line.

Unequivocally outmuscled, out-enthused and outsmarted.

Stephen Kearney’s bench rotation was again a mess. In a familiar trend, Issac Luke was off the paddock for far too long, while their most dangerous playmaker, Harris-Tavita, was ridiculously replaced when the Warriors were chasing late points.

The Warriors’ 12th-place standing is far more dire than it sounds. They are at the top of a five-team logjam tied for last place on a 2-6 record, despite having played only two of their fellow 2018 finalists – and, equally worryingly, only three sides that currently sit inside the Top 8.

Two wins and six losses equals the club’s worst-ever record after eight rounds.

So where do the Warriors go from here?

Nikorima’s addition should provide the side with a bit more impetus, but the qualities the Kiwis Test No.7 will add are not the areas where the team is most lacking.

Again, it comes back to the Warriors’ bewildering penchant for standing up and playing to the high level of the NRL’s heavyweights (but not quite winning) and playing down to the level of the competition’s struggling sides (and still losing).

If the Warriors’ administration, coaching staff and players aren’t yet aware their 2019 campaign is on the brink, they are delusional in the extreme.

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