In some aspects it was one of the Warriors’ less satisfying and impressive wins under Andrew Webster, but the ultimately emphatic 30-8 result over a weakened Dolphins outfit was comfortably their biggest – and certainly one of their most important – of 2023 so far and a much-needed step forward.
Bungling a welter of scoring chances for the first 50 minutes, there was a hint of Hawke’s Bay déjà vu at a packed-out, blacked-out and rechristened Go Media Stadium…until Shaun Johnson tiptoed his way through for the second time in the match and broke the Dolphins’ resolve.
The Warriors scored four tries in 18 thrilling minutes, with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak grabbing a quick-fire brace, to wrap up just their second win in six games before Jamayne Isaako ran in a late consolation four-pointer.
There were some highly encouraging facets of the performance, consistently looking dangerous and far more fluid on attack after last week’s clunky showing with the ball, and holding an enterprising Dolphins side to just one try for 75 minutes. But Wayne Bennett’s intrepid travellers came to Auckland minus Origin duo Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Tom Gilbert, the suspended Felise Kaufusi and late withdrawal Jeremy Marshall-King, so it could be considered a par result for the Warriors.
The Warriors had some misfortune, too, besides their perpetually well-patroned casualty ward: Rocco Berry left the field after just 13 mintues sick and sorry from a head clash, with Josh Curran filling in at centre for the rest of the match.
As well as SJ’s touches of genius big games from front-row marquee man Addin Fonua-Blake and backfield duo DWZ and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, and a dynamic showing from Marata Niukore, the overwhelming individual positive was the barnstorming interchange return of Mitch Barnett after 11 weeks on the sidelines was a might individual positive. Wayde Egan’s guile and thrust from dummy-half was also a key part of the improvement on their last offering.
Mt Smart 💪🏽
Sold out crowds at Rugby League games in NZ 💪🏽
— TEETS NRL/Nz Warriors (@TEETSNrl) June 3, 2023
The Warriors hit the front early thanks to a slick solo effort from Shaun Johnson, but in a maddening repeat of last week a slew of opportunities slipped through their sloppy fingers.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad seemed certain to score but was held up on the line; Marata Niukore made a sideline break but opted for a low-percentage centring kick with plenty of tackles left; Wayde Egan poked his nose through and sent Mitch Barnett into space, but the returning enforcer threw an intercept pass to Dolphins fullback Kodi Nikorima that almost resulted in a try at the other end; and in the last minute of the half Luke Metcalf made the most obvious double-movement attempt of all time on only the third play.
The Warriors’ scramble and goal-line defence was generally excellent but they were eventually caught short in the 35th minute, Tesi Niu strolling in from a looping pass that Dallin Watene-Zelezniak didn’t get enough of a mit on.
Despite making five line-breaks to one, the Warriors’ led just 6-4 at the break.
Kodi's playing FB. If there's a worse tackler in the comp i haven't seen him.
We blow 4 chances to make him make 1 on 1 tackles. Niukore chips on 0 tackle, Barnett throws intercept, Curran passes behind DWZ, Curran not looking when Pompey offloads.
— Mike M (@brnagainwarrior) June 3, 2023
The inability to ice chances continued early in the second half, despite getting a 10-minute crack at a 12-man Dolphins after Anthony Milford was binned for a late hit on Marcelo Montoya.
Johnson and an ever-dangerous Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad combined for DWZ to produce a trademark diving finish, but it was later pulled back for the clumsiest obstruction you could ever hope to see from Marata Niukore.
But the match finally turned on another flash of SJ individual brilliance, the veteran dancing his way through for his first NRL double since 2016.
If the @NZWarriors are still hedging their bets over Shaun Johnson in 2024, they need to stop now…
No more evidence needed. Masterclass tonight. pic.twitter.com/cCysiCsRRq
— Michael Burgess (@mikeburgess99) June 3, 2023
The floodgates subsequently opened. In the ensuing set, CNK and Bailey Sironen linked to put Niukore into space and send Luke Metcalf away to finish off a 65-metre special with Milford still cooling his heels.
Ten minutes later, Niukore got his decoy run right this time and quick hands from Johnson, Nicoll-Klokstad and Josh Curran belatedly sent Watene-Zelezniak in unchecked for the match-sealer.
The in-form winger snared his second try for the second straight game – and seventh of the season – soon afterwards when he magnificently snaffled an Isiaya Katoa pass out of the air and raced 50 metres.
Canterbury product Jamayne Isaako, arguably the Dolphins’ best on the night, slipped clear of Montoya for the umpteenth time to score a well-deserved late try.
But it wasn’t enough to stop the Warriors from leapfrogging the Dolphins into seventh on the ladder on for-and-against. More crucially, it kept at bay three teams on the bye and two sides yet to play in Round 14 who had designs on overtaking the Warriors this weekend.
Warriors found themselves in the second half and the Dolphins couldn’t get out of first gear.
Stronger running, gritty defence and better strike.
Collective effort but the lads in black.
Can we wear that jersey more often?
I’ve always loved the black.
Up the Wahs.
— Hold The Ball (@HoldTheBallYT) June 3, 2023
Possession swung dramatically in the Warriors’ favour in the second half, while they easily won the yardage battle in term of total run metres (1,737 to 1,460), post-contact metres (555 to 409) and average metres per run (10.15 to 8.48). Both teams defended around the 92 percent mark, despite what felt like a helter-skelter, end-to-end contest.
Far from perfect, but a significant improvement in most areas on the loss to a shorthanded Brisbane side a week earlier – and a vital momentum-builder ahead of next Friday’s big road trip to take on Canberra Raiders at Jarrod Croker-Palooza.
Warriors 30 (Shaun Johnson 2, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2, Luke Metcalf tries; Johnson 5 goals) defeated Dolphins 8 (Tesi Niu, Jamayne Isaako tries) at Go Media Stadium, Saturday, June 3.