It only took the prodigal son 242 minutes.
But before his ugly, spiralling golden point field goal snatched a 25-24 victory for the Warriors over North Queensland Cowboys in Redcliffe, it seemed as if it would be one of those misfiring, hater-fuelling performances from Shaun Johnson.
An intercept pass that cost a try, a skewed early-tackle kick and an inability to build pressure – it was, overall, far from Johnson’s finest hour.
The clutchest player the Warriors have ever known – and among greatest end-of-game ice-men of the NRL era – came up with the goods when it mattered, though, finishing the game with his fourth (and the team’s fifth) shot at a one-pointer.
SJ will hog the headlines, but it was remarkable contest in which the Warriors were arguably the second-best team. The 2-2 rivals were locked at nil-all, 6-all, 18-all and 24-all – but the Warriors only led for five minutes of the match. There were eight tries but few that will appear on a highlight-reel beyond the next few days, with both teams offering up a swag of four-pointers with bad mistakes and dusty goal-line defence.
Yet it was a quality encounter…compared to anything else the Warriors have been involved with in 2022, anyway.
The surrogate home side fought back from 18-6 down and levelled up for the final time with 15 minutes left to set up a nerve-shredding conclusion. The Cowboys dominated possession (54%), completions (92% to 82%), run metres (1,814 to 1,387), offloads (12 to two) and the six-agains awarded count (7-1), but the Warriors always looked the more likely when it got down to a next-scorer-wins scenario.
Match Highlights – #NRLWarriorsCowboys 🎥
The Warriors sunk the Cowboys in a golden point thriller! pic.twitter.com/dbk4GHzO8y
— NRL (@NRL) April 8, 2022
The Cowboys’ energy in attack and willingness to offload was apparent early, while a couple of glaring Josh Curran defensive misses proved costly. Back-row tyro Reuben Cotter breezed through a lazy marker effort from Curran before brushing off Matt Lodge to make a long break. During the Cowboys’ next possession, breakout No.6 Tom Dearden dummied and shrugged through another ordinary attempted tackle from Curran for first points.
The Warriors responded quickly, however, through the burgeoning Shaun Johnson-Jesse Arthars combination. In the 11th minute, Johnson dug into the line and centre Arthars steamed onto a pass out the back of a nice Bayley Sironen decoy run to power over for his third try in as many games as a Warrior. Walsh added the extras for the hosts’ maiden lead.
More Cowboy offloads and six-agains had the Warriors pinned on their line again. Perhaps fortuitously, a high shot from Reece Walsh gave Valentine Holmes a straightforward penalty opportunity to level up at 6-all.
The visitors received an absolute gift to go six in front in the 23rd minute, Addin Fonua-Blake’s casual attempt to clean up an awkward Chad Townsend grubber in the Warriors’ in-goal back-firing for stand-in fullback Scott Drinkwater to pounce.
The latter of a pair of wayward Johnson passes inside the Cowboys’ half was punished severely five minutes before halftime. An ill-conceived rainbow ball over the top was easily plucked by winger Murray Taulagi, who sent Holmes on a long run. Marcelo Montoya showed great pace and desire to mow the Kangaroos flyer down, but the Cowboys calmly swept the ball to the other sideline and Kyle Feldt crossed for his 13th career try against the Warriors.
Holmes’ sideline conversion created an unflattering 18-6 scoreline, but the Warriors crucially halved the deficit just before the break. Chanel Harris-Tavita – a demon in defence during the opening 40 minutes – stepped up to drill a wonderful 40/20 before Curran atoned for his poor start and quiet half by stepping through from close range to score.
The Cowboys left their minds in the sheds and the scores were square again less than two minutes in the second stanza. Taulagi dropped the kick-off, before Kodi Nikorima exploited a terrible piece of marker defence from Drinkwater to stroll through a gap wider than Hokitika Gorge.
But a Bunty Afoa knock-on near halfway wasted another gilt-edged attacking chance and the Cowboys capitalised, stretching the Warriors at the end of a pedestrian goal-line set with a well-executed sweep, Holmes slicing through to score out wide – despite a valiant attempt from Reece Walsh to hold him up in-goal.
The Cowboys enjoyed a pile of possession near the Warriors’ line in the subsequent 15 minutes but could only come up with a penalty goal for a bogus high-tackle call against Montoya, who absolutely – and legitimately – rocked former teammate Peta Hiku.
The Warriors, starved of good ball, took a rare six-again chance with both hands. Harris-Tavita served up a ball for wantaway second-rower Euan Aitken, who showed great hands and power, to run through a hole a score another equaliser.
Everyone got pretty jittery from that point. The Cowboys absolutely bottled any opportunities they had in the dying stages, failing to set for a field goal and kicking dead. A terrible Adam Pompey drop coming out of Warriors territory went unpunished.
Johnson had the first field goal attempt charged down and Walsh sprayed one, while CHT – who was immense all night – saved the day with a desperate effort to recover a loose ball on his line with a minute left (and copped a Townsend boot to the noggin for good measure).
Getting the breeze advantage back for the first half of golden point, Johnson sliced a shot and had another charged down, before eluding a blatantly offside/not-square marker to somehow pilot one through the sticks for the Warriors’ first golden point win since 2016 – when SJ himself tiptoed through a Penrith side that flaunted the referees’ call extra-time penalties and scored a try.
It was also the Warriors’ first golden point field goal since Stacey Jones knocked one over against the Roosters in 2009.
The match had a potentially unsavoury chaser, with a Warrior apparently using a homophobic slur heard loud and clear over the ref’s mic midway through the second half.
— Dean Messiter (@truck1984) April 8, 2022
We’ll deal with that later. If it’s as it seems, sit him for a couple of weeks.
The Warriors are on a three-match winning streak for just the eighth time since the 2011 grand final; next week, they’ll chase a fourth consecutive victory for just the third time during that 10-and-a-bit-season period.
Amazing, we are 3-2 for just the eighth time in our 28-season history. The only time we didn’t go on to make the finals was the first, in 1996.
Hook that up to my veins
— Fonzie (@fonzieswarriors) April 8, 2022
But for now, for me at least, it’s all about my guy.
Johnson’s class, innate match-winning ability and passion for the cause – as evidenced in an emotional post-match interview – are the 2022 Warriors’ greatest assets in terms of the club’s bid to return to the finals. We’ve been robbed of his clutch-ness and everything that’s good about the Warriors he embodies for three years, but after three games minutes back in the only club jumper he’s ever wanted to play in, the veteran has got as a win because he has always, always been willing to be that guy.
Suck on that one, Brian Smith.
Warriors 25 (Jesse Arthars, Josh Curran, Kodi Nikorima, Euan Aitken tries; Reece Walsh 4 goals; Shaun Johnson field goal) defeated North Queensland Cowboys 24 (Tom Dearden, Scott Drinkwater, Kyle Feldt, Valentine Holmes tries; Holmes 4 goals) in golden point at Moreton Daily Stadium