The Warriors fanbase is still basking in the glow of last week’s shutout of struggling St George Illawarra in Gosford. A bigger challenge awaits the NRL’s nomads at Campbelltown Stadium on Friday night in the form of Penrith Panthers.
The Warriors’ 18-0 defeat of the Dragons was as emphatic and admirable as it was unexpected. Certainly the unprecedented 46-of-48 completions – only making their first mistake in the 75th minute – was out of the blue. The performance as a whole was a quantum leap forward from the insipid showings of Round 1 and 2.
It deserves to rank alongside the great wins in the club’s history, given the hoops this team has had to jump through in recent months.
But the status of last Saturday’s display could largely depend on the Warriors’ ability to back it up on Friday against Penrith. A regressive loss would take the sheen off it…but another win genuinely gives the club a foundation to build a fairytale on.
The unbeaten Panthers are a more formidable proposition than the sorry Saints, but far from heavyweights – the Warriors’ clear underdog status shouldn’t disguise what a huge opportunity this assignment it.
A repeat of the massive collective forward-pack effort, poise and outstanding ball control, and an ability to ice their opportunities can make up for the Warriors’ attacking deficiencies and key absentees. The club’s unique plight has galvanised the players – if last weekend can be used as a gauge – and it’s a wave the Warriors need to ride for as long as possible.
The Warriors need more avenues to score points – but it’s hard to see much happening out wide with first-choice centres Peta Hiku and David Fusitu’a unavailable.
Karl Lawton and Gerard Beale are sound fill-ins but lack pace and the spark needed to create chances for their wingers. Ken Maumalo and Patrick Herbert are back-field workhorses but don’t go looking for opportunities on attack, like a Jordan Rapana.
The snail-paced Blake Green’s inability to create space on the right edge has been well-documented by TWL, so the players who need to stand up on attack are the only Warriors with genuine speed off the mark: Kodi Nikorima and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Nikorima, as he showed by putting Eliesa Katoa over, and RTS can get on the outside and manufacture those crucial two-on-ones – they need to take over inside the opposition 20. While Nikorima was widely praised for his performance on Saturday and produced the highlight-reel moments, he still needs to up his involvement at five-eighth as a ball-player, ball-runner and kicker.
Meanwhile, job number one for the Beale-Herbert combination will on defence, with the Panthers’ left-side threats Viliame Kikau, Stephen Crichton and Brian To’o certain to throw more at the Warriors than the Dragons did.
Katoa headed for game’s heights
Tohu Harris was immense and a clear man-of-the-match against the Dragons, racking up incredible numbers (219 metres and 48 tackles) playing more as a middle forward. Adam Blair’s impactful, industrious display in front-row was arguably his best for the club. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown stepped into a starting role with aplomb. Ordinary in the first two rounds, King Vuniyayawa played out of his skin off the bench.
But it’s hard to avert our engine-room focus from Eliesa Katoa. Incredibly, he had played just 13 games of rugby league at any level – none above Jersey Flegg – before 2020. The hulking 20-year-old is a natural destined for club great status.
Players’ player in back-to-back dismal team efforts before the shutdown, Katoa still picked up a Dally M point against the Dragons after scoring his maiden try and chalking up big stats on both sides of the ball. Mobile for his size, Katoa runs great lines – something the club has lacked in the second-row for some time – and also comes up with big defensive plays that defy his level of experience.
Pencil him in for Dally M Rookie of the Year honours.
Hiku’s injury and suspension to Agnatius Paasi has opened the door for Josh Curran and Roosters loan player Poasa Faamausili.
Curran really needs to grasp this chance. He’s played four NRL games for three wins with the Roosters and Warriors but is yet to stand out – which he did for the Indigenous All Stars at the start of the year.
When Paasi, Lachlan Burr and Jazz Tevaga are all available again, Stephen Kearney won’t be able to carry any quiet performers.
The 108kg Faamausili could be a huge addition. He’s played 14 games for the heavyweight Roosters but hasn’t been afforded too many minutes – the Auckland-born 24-year-old will see this as a gilt-edged opportunity to star at NRL level. The question remains, though, how long will he be allowed to stay with his adopted club?
Penrith is one of just four unbeaten teams after three but will be ruing a competition point that went begging in a golden point draw against Newcastle.
Impressive winners against Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra in the opening two rounds, the Panthers shot out to a 14-0 lead over an injury-hit Knights outfit who were already under-strength before losing key troops early in the game.
Failing to score a point in the last 55 minutes of regulation time – then in 10 minutes of golden point – is a concern for a side long ridiculed for failing to stay on task for the full 80 (or in this case, 90).
They missed Nathan Cleary last week and he’s still got one game of his ban to serve. But there’s still more than enough experience, creativity and strike in the Panthers line-up – emphasised by the fact they go into Friday night as $1.45 favourites. Stand-in halfback Jarome Luai was a major thorn in the Warriors’ sides in his 2018 and ’19 starts with Cleary absent.
A loss to the resurgent Warriors, though, could undo much of the Panthers’ good work from their first two and a half games of 2020.
The Warriors have a shaky 4-7 all-time record at Campbelltown Stadium, while the Panthers are 9-9. But both clubs have struggled at the ground in recent times.
The Warriors are on a four-match losing streak at the ground – all to Wests Tigers, conceding a whopping 168 points in the process. The Panthers have banked just one win in their last six visits to Campbelltown, their ‘home’ ground during this rejigged schedule but still more than 50 kilometres from Penrith.
It’s also the Warriors’ biggest road trip since coming over to play in Newcastle in Round 1. Their ensuing clash with Canberra at Cbus Super Stadium was just 40 kilometres from their temporary Kingscliff base, while it was a quick bus trip to Central Coast Stadium in Gosford last weekend.
Friday on my mind
The Friday 8pm (NZT) game is a favourite for NZ-based Warriors fans convenience-wise, but it’s also been a fruitful scheduling timeslot for the club.
Since the start of 2018, the Warriors have racked up an outstanding 13-4 record on Friday nights – including a 5-1 count on Australian soil.
Last season, Friday night fixtures were responsible for six of the Warriors’ nine victories – despite playing on Friday just eight times.