That one stings, but in about the best way a lost opportunity like that could as a brave Warriors outfit was reeled in after a hot start in a 30-22 Anzac Day defeat to long-time oppressors Melbourne Storm.
The Warriors were big betting outsiders but general opinion rated them a huge chance of ending a nine-year April 25 drought and a 13-match losing streak in the rivalry. They were on course to do so at 18-6 up after 20 minutes and 22-12 in front early in the second half.
But contentious calls and a shocking attrition rate ultimately brought the valiant visitors undone after they led for 52 minutes.
Dylan Walker’s highly controversial sin-binning late in the first half (pretty galling in light of barely- or not-punished Storm grubbery in the second half), a go-ahead Storm try bizarrely confirmed by the Bunker despite an apparent knock-on, a distinct lack of rub of the green in 50/50 moments and a genuine lopsided officiating feel that has become very familiar for the club at AAMI Park made this a frustrating watch.
Shocking officiating, key players down, questionable sin bin yet still fighting and stayed in the game til the last 5 mins. That’s my team ✊🏼 so proud #WarriorSpirit
— Stela (@shiningserpent_) April 25, 2023
More crucial, though, was finishing with an empty bench. Tohu Harris (knee) departed late in the first half, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (head knock) with 25 minutes to go, and Jazz Tevaga (Achilles) and Bayley Sironen (head knock) in the last quarter as the Warriors fought gamely at two points down.
But to say the better team lost would be inaccurate. The Storm weathered a poor start to both halves and, in particular, managed the second half brilliantly and took their (ocassionally ill-gotten) opportunities.
The Storm needed their marquee types and game-breakers to step up and they did to a man. Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Harry Grant caused constant headaches and produced big plays, while the likes of Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Justin Olam proved hard to handle all night and changed momentum at regular intervals with their tackle-breaking exploits.
The hosts did need, however, a couple fortuitous tries to man-of-the-match Nick Meaney from kicks to finally get in front, before Grant broke the gassed, shorthanded Warriors with five minutes to go.
Gallantry aside, the injury toll is a big worry as a brutal section of the draw ramps up with a five-day turnaround to take on the high-profile Roosters.
It’s certainly not the first Anzac Day the Warriors have left Melbourne gutted but heads held high with a tight, brave loss devoid of the bounce of the ball and the blow of the whistle – 2013, 2017 and 2019 spring immediately to mind. But the key in the aftermath is to channel a strong performance positively…something they failed to do in the aforementioned close-but-no-cigar years.
Not a new suggestion, but it is long overdue for a @NZWarriors Anzac Day match in NZ.
I'm really over these games, with home advantage always one way.
— Michael Burgess (@mikeburgess99) April 25, 2023
The Warriors struck before the five-minute mark after great high-ball pressure from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak earned an early repeat set.
Beautiful linking between Shaun Johnson, Tohu Harris and Dylan Walker isolate Storm halfback Jahrome Hughes for a rampaging Jackson Ford to storm over. Johnson drilled the conversion for 6-0.
The visitors passed their first goal-line test soon afterwards and had another opportunity following Johnson’s exquisite last-tackle grubber that had Hughes trapped.
Running off Johnson, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s sensational quick hands thwarted a jamming Melbourne left edge and gave Dallin Watene-Zelezniak a clear passage to score for a point-a-minute 12-0 advantage.
But a Cameron Munster 40/20 in their belated next possession proved a merciful momentum changer. A few tackles later Hughes and Munster combined before Bronson Garlick popped an offload for Justin Olam to stroll in, DWZ guilty of rushing in.
The Warriors provided another reminder that they’re an entirely new outfit in 2023 – this time on the back of two outstanding pieces of play from Freddy Lussick. The stand-in hooker earned a penalty with a sharp dummy-half dart then forced a line dropout with a deft kick.
From the ensuing dropout, Addin Fonua-Blake capped a mighty start by stepping his way through soft defence to score under the posts and restore a 12-point buffer.
Ill-discipline with and without the ball permeated the Warriors play during the ensuing period and – following an incorrect dropout call against Johnson from serial pedant Grant Atkins – Harry Grant sent Munster spearing through for the Storm’s second try five minutes out from the break.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona had caused havoc since entering the fray from a six-week layoff midway through the first half, busting tackles and offloading at will.
In a diabolical finish to the half for the Warriors, Harris was assisted from the field with another knee injury (with Atkins refusing to stop play for a couple of sets) and Walker contentiously binned for alleged head slam (with Atkins, or whoever was in the box, apparently auditioning for a rugby union gig).
Remember when NAS busted Waydes teeth and it was just a penalty?
Walker gets sin binned for less. pic.twitter.com/VfIYL0nsNq
— TEETS NRL/Nz Warriors (@TEETSNrl) April 25, 2023
Holding on to an 18-12 halftime lead was something of a moral victory.
The Warriors returned full of energy and focus, however, and landed a huge blow while still a man short.
Johnson again kick-started the tryscoring movement, digging in to create space for CNK and Adam Pompey to link and send Watene-Zelezniak in for his second.
The Storm struck straight back, though, capitalising on the shorthanded Warriors’ right side as DWZ made an absolute howler of a defensive decision. His opposite, Xavier Coates, put in a superb centring kick for a flying Nick Meaney to dot down.
A Justin Olam charge, a couple of ruck infringements, CNK’s head-knock exit and a Bunker abomination later, the Storm took the lead for the first time with 20 minutes left.
Somehow failing to send up what looked like a clear touch in the air from Reimis Smith, the officials allowed Meaney to cruise to the loose ball for his second.
Two more penalties in the ensuing two sets put the Warriors on their heels at the goal-line. They survived and continued to fight for a chance to get back in front, but the subsequent exits of Tevaga and Sironen made the job too tough.
A Munster break and Grant’s dummy-half determination – in spite of fullback replacement Dallin’s best goal-line efforts – produced the match-sealer with five minutes left.
Total run metres and average metres per carry were the vital stats working against the Warriors in an even-possession match; despite how clearly fatigued they were, they made just four errors and finished almost level on the missed-tackle count – though it may not have felt that way watching the match unfold.
Big picture, Bellamy should be more worried than Webster after that
— Fonzie (@fonzieswarriors) April 25, 2023
The performance of the Storm’s top-tier players was perhaps the first reminder (save for possibly parts of the Round 2 loss to the Roosters) that the Warriors are a team performing well above the sum of its parts but lack the real blue-chip X-factors of many rivals. Johnson, again marvellous but more about control than earth-shattering magic these days, is an exception and Walker was really strong in his second match at five-eighth, but there looked a bit of a lack of options when the Warriors got behind.
The loss of three integral players (plus one other) was obviously a factor in coming down the stretch a bit flat. But attention now turns to Sunday against Anzac Day victors the Roosters with Harris, Tevaga, CNK and probably Sironen longs odds to play. Then it’s six days till Penrith in Magic Round in Brisbane and another six days till Canterbury in Sydney before a much-needed bye.
The toughest part of the Warriors’ 2023 renaissance lies ahead in the next few weeks, but on the strength of their gutsy Anzac Day display – as with all seven of their previous outings – they are better equipped than any predecessor since 2011 to deal with it.
Melbourne Storm (Nick Meaney 2, Justin Olam, Cameron Munster, Harry Grant tries; Meaney 5 goals) defeated Warriors 22 (Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2, Jackson Ford, Addin Fonua-Blake tries; Johnson 3 goals) at AAMI Park, Melbourne, April 25, 2023.