Looks like we (or more accurately, Andrew Webster) might have something here.
In the club’s best win since at least the 2020 demolition of Newcastle in Tamworth – and arguably since the charge to the 2018 finals – the Warriors have gone to steamy Townsville, where the temperature was still 28 degrees after fulltime, and dominated one of last season’s top-four heavyweights 26-12. The result snapped a 13-match losing streak in Australia.
A team that conceded 29 points per game last year has been transformed into one of the NRL’s toughest defensive nuts to crack under a new regime, holding a Cowboys outfit that scored 28 points per game at home in 2022 to just two streaky tries from kicks inside the first 13 minutes.
Meanwhile, an apparently limited Warriors attacking unit, that had four first-choice players from last week ruled out, ran in five well-constructed, hard-earned and superbly-executed tries. After trailing 6-0 after five minutes and 12-6 with quarter of an hour gone, the Warriors had a mortgage on the scoresheet. The unfancied visitors clawed to a 16-12 halftime lead and backed up the only two tries of the second half with sensational scramble and defensive pressure.
A Cowboys starting pack boasting four internationals and an Origin player was made to look second-rate. Jason Taumalolo, with a stunningly modest 109 metres, was the only forward for the hosts to reach triple figures. Five members of the Warriors’ gritty, skilful engine-room racked up more than 120 metres apiece. Dylan Walker was close to being the best afield, Mitch Barnett is jostling with him for buy of the year, Addin Fonua-Blake had one of his finest games for the club, Tohu Harris was unsurprisingly indefatigable in his 200th and Jazz Tevaga made a magnificent return to first grade.
In numbers straight out of Fonzie’s footy stat wet dreams, the Warriors outstripped the Cowboys by almost 300 running metres and had an average metres per run count of 9.40 to the Cowboys’ 8.98. The Warriors picked their vaunted opponents apart through the middle.
Shaun Johnson and Wayde Egan steered the ship calmly and brilliantly, Te Maire Martin produced two try-assists in his best game of the year to date, debutant fullback Taine Tuaupiki looked every bit the first-grader in a faultless NRL introduction, and an at-times shaky three-quarter line did enough good things with and without the ball to win a points decision over their opposites.
— Matt Turner (@fugazeyfugazi) March 18, 2023
— NRL (@NRL) March 18, 2023
Slow starts to halves have been a frustrating pattern for the Warriors in 2023 and for the fifth straight term they had a try put on them inside the first seven minutes. Egan couldn’t do enough to defuse a kick that bounced off the upright padding and Cowboys fullback novice Tom Chester pounced for the opener.
The Warriors responded in outstanding fashion, Harris putting Fonua-Blake into space and Egan backing up to grab the offload and his third try in as many games. But when Chester was the only player to contest a bomb in front of the Warriors’ sticks, Cowboys No.9 Reece Robson accepted the scraps to put the home side back in front.
Getting on top in the yardage battle, the Warriors were unable to convert several chances into points – until a throwback Johnson cross-field run disrupted the Cowboys’ defence and Martin sent Marcelo Montoya over in the corner in the 28th minute. Five minutes later, Johnson and Walker combined to send Tevaga over next to the posts and the Warriors into a lead they would not relinquish.
Belatedly, the Warriors came out of the blocks firing to start a half.
Picking up in the second stanza where they left off, Johnson again kick-started a sweeping play inside the Cowboys’ 20 that resulted in Adam Pompey producing a spectacular try-assist for Ed Kosi to dive in. Johnson goaled from the sideline for 22-12, before a Martin cut-out ball created space for Montoya to Superman-dive in for his second with 25 minutes left.
Shaun Johnson's best game in years. Warriors very impressive today. Cowboys are a worry.
— Brad Boucher (@WePlayLeague) March 18, 2023
Further chances to really put their foot on the Cowboys’ throat slipped through the Warriors’ fingers, but they largely played the percentages and looked in control with a 14-point lead. Sloppy handling errors from Pompey (who also popped an absolute clanger of a turnover offload deep in his own territory with the result pretty much, but not quite, wrapped up) and late call-up Viliami Vailea inside the last 15 minutes created nasty pangs of déjà vu of collapses past.
But this outfit apparently has more backbone than most previous incarnations of the Warriors. The mistakes gave them more opportunities to prove how committed, how desperate and how cohesive they can be without the ball, forcing the Cowboys into mistakes with good decisions and great defensive intent, and miraculously keeping their try-line intact in the last quarter for the third straight game with some heroic saves.
Only the most optimistic of Warriors fans looked at the early draw – with two games in Australia, none at Mt Smart and two opponents rated premiership contenders – and thought a 2-1 record was realistic. But it’s the way Webster’s Warriors have carved out their two gritty wins and one gutsy, narrow loss that has been so encouraging.
Good coaches get teams playing to a level higher than the sum of their parts and that’s certainly what Webster has achieved so far. Not unlike the Dolphins, there’s clear limitations and weaknesses in their make-up, yet the Warriors are shoring those up with sheer effort and uncustomary composure.
In a competition that is shaping as the most even and unpredictable since 2018, the Top 8 should be the Warriors’ minimum aim from here. It’s a long road – but the next step is one the players and fans will be fizzing for: a Mt Smart Stadium home game for just the fourth time in three and a half years, against Canterbury.
The only real negatives to come out of a memorable evening in the tropics were second-half injuries to Barnett, who was taken to hospital with nerve pain in his neck, and Egan, who looks likely to miss the Bulldogs clash courtesy of a sickening clash with Taumalolo. But the next-man-up mentality on display today suggests their potential absences gives a couple of willing fringe players the opportunity to make their on-field contribution to a bold new Warriors era.
Warriors 26 (Marcelo Montoya 2, Wayde Egan, Jazz Tevaga, Ed Kosi tries; Shaun Johnson 3 goals) defeated North Queensland Cowboys 12 (Tom Chester, Reece Robson tries; Valentine Holmes 2 goals) at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville, on Saturday, 18 March, 2023.
People need to start taking this Warriors team a little more seriously.
— Anton Posa (@antonposa) March 18, 2023
— Stela (@shiningserpent_) March 18, 2023
One of the most impressive wins I've seen from the Warriors in a long, long time. Played for 80 minutes – that's the key. No one fell away and they just did everything right. Special things happening at this club people…
— Sam Hewat (@samhewat) March 18, 2023
The feels right now. pic.twitter.com/sB4ZjKVpPW
— TEETS NRL/Nz Warriors (@TEETSNrl) March 18, 2023
Great win by @NZWarriors – could they be finals bound???
Cowboys were Tigers-bad.
— The Mole (@9_Moley) March 18, 2023
thank you Warriors everyone put their hands up. great team win.
— simon griffin (@simongriifinjp) March 18, 2023
— Shippy (@ShippyMcWhippy) March 18, 2023