The Warriors took another significant step forward in their evolution under Andrew Webster, marking their belated Mt Smart Stadium return with a nerve-shredding 16-14 win over Canterbury Bulldogs.
Trailing for 64 minutes after yet another tardy start, the Warriors finally hit the front through a East Stand roof-raising solo try in the last quarter from the mercurial Shaun Johnson, icing a vintage performance that included laying on his team’s first try and producing another brilliant defensive performance.
But it was a bumpy road to get to the lead. What the Bulldogs lacked in organisation and concentration, they made up for in ad-lib enthusiasm and intent.
Meanwhile, an utter howler from the increasingly deservedly maligned Bunker threatened to ruin the Auckland homecoming in all-too-familar style.
It felt like so many Mt Smart Stadium afternoons of yesteryear, destined to end in heartbreak on the back of misfortune and a couple of lapses. But once again Webster’s version of the Warriors kept cool and waited for the inevitable opportunities a gutsy but somewhat erratic Bulldogs outfit provided.
The fourth-placed Warriors have now won three of their first four games for just the fourth time in their history (the others being 2002, 2003 and 2018).
— NRL (@NRL) March 26, 2023
Another week, another cheap early penalty and try conceded.
The Bulldogs gleefully accepted their third-minute attacking opportunity, which was helped along by a shocking defensive decision from Viliame Vailea. Opposing centre Jake Averillo capitalised on the misread, subsequently bumping off Marcelo Montoya and sending wing sensation Jacob Kiraz over in the corner.
A six-again, line dropout and an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge on a penalty call (after a plea from Johnson, that would also make the Bunker’s second-half farce harder to swallow) allowed the visitors to extend to 8-0 after eight minutes with Matt Burton’s second goal.
The Warriors were barely troubled down their own end for the remainder of the half, but the hosts was unable to convert a wealth of possession in good ball despite looking promising on attack.
A freakish intercept from Ed Kosi to defuse a dangerous situation – the highlight of a strong half from the rapidly improving winger – put the wheels in motion for the Warriors’ first try.
Soon afterwards, Vailea steamed onto a lovely ball from Shaun Johnson, broke multiple tackles and reached out to score. Johnson converted from a wide angle to cut the deficit to two points at the break.
The Warriors appeared certain to hit the front early in the second half when a marauding Adam Pompey clearly had the ball stripped by Viliame Kikau and regathered to score.
But the Bunker official – with the benefit of multiple replays but apparently not rugby league knowledge, commonsense or eyesight – farcically ruled a knock-on.
Graham Annesley right now pic.twitter.com/AXgM6P9dff
— This Warriors Life (@thiswarriorslyf) March 26, 2023
Adding insult to incompetence (along with the knee injury exit of Tohu Harris), Josh Addo-Carr streaked 80 metres a couple of plays late to restore the Bulldogs’ eight-point advantage.
Regrouping, the Warriors peppered the Bulldogs’ line and found a breakthrough in the 56th minute. Slick work from Te Maire Martin and a superb one-handed offload from Vailea provided clear passage to the corner for Montoya.
The blockbusting Montoya subsequently came up with a cold drop on his own 20-metre line, but the Warriors’ newfound ability to defend their mistakes (after the first 10 minutes, at least) came to the fore.
Then Johnson seized the moment with a show-and-go on the last tackle to slice through and score under the posts, putting the Warriors in front for the first time. Don’t let any Bulldogs bleating trick you – no way was there anything untoward about Reed Mahoney ironing himself out by colliding with support runner Addin Fonua-Blake.
Shaun Johnson playing champagne footy again, you really do love to see it 😍 https://t.co/iSyY4KpruG
— Depressed sports fan Moe (@AlPacimoe) March 26, 2023
It was not obstruction. Reed Mahoney made his decision. It wasn’t to tackle Johnson. It was to tackle Fonua-Blake. Johnson beat two defenders inside Mahoney. It was fair try. Mind you, 99/100 in recent years they would’ve disallowed the try, which, to my mind, would be wrong.
— Phil Gould (@PhilGould15) March 26, 2023
The remaining 13 minutes were not what a cardiologist would prescribe, with penalties and fifth-tackle ruck infringements putting the Warriors right under the pump on their own line. But again their close-to-NRL-best goal-line defence was up to the task and they closed it out, with Johnson’s cool head coming in handy.
The tight scoreline and nervous moments aside, the Warriors had plenty to be happy with in the stats department: six line-breaks to two, 41 tackle-breaks to 27, 88 percent completion and and narrow win in yardage.
They’ll need to be better to keep winning, but a 3-1 start is a tremendous result – and conceding just 14.5 points per game will keep them in most contests. It’s worth remembering Wayde Egan and Mitch Barnett, two of their best across each of the opening three rounds, were missing – and sorely missed. But the foundation has unmistakably been laid for a real tilt at a Top 8 return in 2023.
Warriors 16 (Viliame Vailea, Marcelo Montoya, Shaun Johnson tries; Johnson 2 goals) defeat Canterbury Bulldogs 14 (Jacob Kiraz, Josh Addo-Carr tries; Matt Burton 3 goals) at Mt Smart Stadium, Sunday, March 26.
Such a nervous finish. In the past we 100% would have lost games like that. But this side under Webster knows how to hang tough. And I still rate our bench as amongst the best in the comp. Tevaga and Walker immense. Also…SJ had a cracking game. Enjoy it boys!
— Anton Posa (@antonposa) March 26, 2023
Fine win @NZWarriors – had some bad calls against them and still came out on top.
— The Mole (@9_Moley) March 26, 2023
📍 Home / Ūkaipō pic.twitter.com/BN38c0VHR2
— Jason Oliver (@JasonNRL) March 26, 2023