TWL RD 1: SLOPPY WARRIORS GET DRAGGED

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I’ve witnessed some mind-blowing Round 1 capitulations from the Warriors in my time, so this could only ever rank somewhere in the middle.

And though the 28-16 defeat to St George Illawarra on the Sunshine Coast was unquestionably two competition points that went begging with a catalogue of padded-cell-inducing moments, I’m feeling more placated than after any season-opening loss since Manly beat us 26-20 in a very respectable grand final replay result to kick off 2012.

The Warriors rallied from an early 12-0 deficit to trail by just four at the break, took the lead less than 10 minutes into the second stanza and then conceded the last three tries of the match after committing a slew of horrific errors.

The Saints’ wing mountain, Makaele Ravalawa, terrorised opposite Marcelo Montoya to finish with a match-winning hat-trick as the Warriors ventured into the second year of their Nathan Brown-instructed doctorate in rugby league shot-footery with gusto.

Shaun Johnson’s return was the inevitable headliner – and it was like he never left. Moments of pure brilliance, several instances of poor execution (perhaps understandable since he hasn’t played any sort of competitive footy since July) and a gamble that ultimately proved crucial as the Dragons surged home. All in all, though, the prodigal son finished on the positive side of the ledger.

Stand-in captain Addin Fonua-Blake and cult-hero lock Josh Curran were immense. The Dragons’ flame pleaded to be extinguished. But myriad chances were wasted and some regrettable rushes of blood from some of their aforementioned spearheads, along with the mind-blowing incompetence of the likes of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Kodi Nikorima, saw an impressive fight-back turn into dust.

Johnson struck the first decent blow for either side with a classy forced line dropout after four minutes. Eliesa Katoa ruined it by duffing his clean-up of the dropout and the Dragons marched downfield to score as fullback Tyrell Sloan’s cut-out ball sent Ravalawa in for an opener that will see the Warriors’ left edge spend a fair bit of time studying video next week.

The Warriors’ inability to complete sets into a very stiff breeze kept handing the ascendancy to the Saints, who again capitalised through Sloan, the young gun turning a pass in for Jack Bird to power through a confused right-side defence.

The Dragons could have put the foot on throat but didn’t. The Warriors struck back with a bizarre try in the 20th minute.

Johnson fired a long ball to Watene-Zelezniak, who had little option in a narrow corridor but to nudge it ahead – and Sloan’s punt that it would go dead back-fired as Dallin slammed the ball down for a try.

Fonua-Blake’s 50-metre kick-off return came to nothing, but Jack Gosiewski’s defensive bungle with nine minutes of the first half remaining saw Curran steam through a gap off a Johnson hand-off and Wayde Egan backed up to run 25 metres to the line.

The Warriors escaped a late first-half barrage on their line with only a penalty goal against them and a fortunate 14-10 scoreline to come back from.

The second half was shaping as a Warriors landslide.

Johnson immediately took advantage of the breeze with a monster 40/20 from his own 30-metre line, before sending Katoa over on a short side with a deft (but possibly forward) short ball.

In the lead for the first time, the Warriors failed miserably in the composure, footy smarts and playing the percentages departments. Pushed passes and shonky options sent a succession of wax-sealed invitations to the jittery Saints to get back into the game.

DWZ’s horrendous attempted offload (after one from AFB a couple of minutes earlier went unpunished) led to Ravalawa steam-rolling Montoya in the 57th minute, St George Illawarra reclaiming the lead.

It still felt like the Warriors’ game to lose, but a low-percentage option from Johnson – cross-field kicking for Vailea from his own 10-metre line – put the Dragons on the attack again and Ravalawa benefitted from Zac Lomax’s Montoya-fooling guile to storm in for his third.

The Saints still only led by six, but utility recruit Moses Mbye sniped over under the posts after a Sloan bust with six minutes on the clock to all but wrap it up.

Still a theoretical chance of forcing golden point, the Warriors’ fate was sealed by Nikorima’s late-game obsession with getting in Johnson’s way after a overwhelmingly anonymous first 75 minutes.

The stats largely tell the story, with the Warriors enjoying just 43 percent possession, out-committing the Dragons error-wise 13-9 and losing the penalty count 8-4 as well as finishing on the wrong side of most attacking metrics.

But as it always has, Johnson’s presence teases the promise of potential glory. Coupled with the dynamic middle-forward displays of Fonua-Blake and Curran, and the not-a-moment-too-soon injection of suspended fullback Reece Walsh and the return of Matt Lodge, there’s seems genuine hope of building tangible success in 2022, as rollercoaster-y as it will unquestionably be.

There’s an early onus on coach Brown, however. Error-strewn Dallin was abysmal in a back-five that was badly outgunned physically. Will he have the bottle to bring in a Ratuva or Pompey to replace a Carige/Grogan-like presence on the flank soon enough? Kodi’s fifth-tackle plays and customary lack of presence were glaring. Will Brown be willing to give CHT (a wholehearted but wholly unsuited fullback) a crack alongside SJ before it’s too late?

It’s the Titans next week, another similar-level team who won’t be easy. An 0-2 start would crank the pressure valve up given next on the docket are Round 1 overachievers the Broncos and Tigers ahead of some high-profile assignments from Easter onwards.

The Top 8 pieces might just be there. Whether Brownie can put them in place remains to be seen.

Emotionally, here’s my main takeaway (and this is probably the post-SJ-return and Stoke Hazy buzz talking): despite the massive roster turnover and enormous COVID-related upheavals in the past three years, it feels like the Warriors again more than any stage since Shaun left.

And I’m totally into it.

St George Illawarra Dragons 28 (Mikaele Ravalawa 3, Jack Bird, Moses Mbye tries; Zac Lomax 4 goals) defeated New Zealand Warriors 16 (Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Wayde Egan, Eliesa Katoa tries; Shaun Johnson 2 goals) at Sunshine Coast Stadium

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