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The Warriors made their most emphatic statement of 2023 yet to dominate warm favourite Canberra 36-14, producing a monumental defensive display in the face of a dearth of territory and possession to trail by just two at halftime then blowing the inexplicably flat hosts off GIO Stadium and sabotaing Jarrod Croker’s much-talked-about 300-game celebrations.

After a patchy five or six games, the Warriors reverted back to the resilient unit that made us all fall in love with Andrew Webster and his reborn charges in March and April.

The visitors soaked up the emotion of the occasion, a baying Canberra crowd, wave after wave of Raiders attack and a lack of rub of the green to ensure the teams went to the sheds one try apiece – levelling the scoreboard up with theirs while Mitch Barnett was in the sin-bin.

The second-half was a complete turnaround – except the Warriors cashed in on their myriad opportunities against a Raiders side that capitulated. Five tries against a late consolation effort to the home side created an astonishing final scoreline – and completed a remarkable 80-minute performance – that will make the rest of the NRL take notice.

Ali Leiataua had a fine debut opposite the deflated milestone man, particularly in defence. As per last week, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Addin Fonua-Blake and Barnett were industrious AF, while Shaun Johnson had three try-assists and a cherry-on-top four-pointer. But it was the collective effort that was the overwhelming takeaway.

The Raiders’ overwhelming field-position dominance, aided by penalties, a couple of Warriors errors and their NRL-best post-contact metres finally bore fruit in the 21st minute, albeit in fortuitous circumstances. Jack Wighton regained his own deflected kick to stroll in for the opener.

Barnett went to the bin a couple of minutes later for a high shot on Jordan Rapana but the Warriors repelled subsequent Raider raids, before taking a rare opportunity spectacularly as Dallin Watene-Zelezniak leapt to grab a brilliant Johnson cross-field kick and plant with very little space to work in.

The Warriors couldn’t buy a call – with DWZ farcically penalised while his side was in possession for a minor dust-up with Corey Horsburgh, allowing Croker to pop over a go-ahead goal – but the 8-6 halftime scoreline was more than palatable for the under-siege guests.

The Raiders were a shadow of the team that had won seven of their last eight in the second half. Put under pressure from the resumption, they fell behind for the first time in the 48th minute when Johnson dug into the line and CNK beat the tackle of Croker to slip through for his third try of the season.

A risky shift inside their own 20 paid major dividends soon afterwards, Luke Metcalf’s sideline break followed up three tackles later by a lovely, trademark bit of deception from Tohu Harris, who sent Tom Ale steaming into a hole for his maiden NRL meat pie under the posts.

The points kept on coming at regular intervals: A gorgeous SJ flat ball on the last tackle sent Metcalf spearing through in the 63rd minute; Johnson went off courtesy of a nasty head clash in the movement, but Wayde Egan dummied through from dummy-half to break the Raiders’ backs only a few minutes later.

Josh Papali’i reached out to score Canberra’s second try with less than three minutes to go after a Marata Niukore finished in the bin for another shoulder to Rapana’s melon.

But the Warriors had a memorable last laugh as the Raiders spread the ball from the kick-off and returning hero Johnson burgled Sebastian Kris’ pass to disbelievingly breeze in for a massive exclamation mark on a magnificent team performance.

It was the perfect way to head into their second bye and sets up a tantalising platform for the run home. The Warriors return in a fortnight with a Friday night game against St George Illawarra at bogey venue WIN Stadium (potentially without Barnett and Niukore, but likely with Dylan Walker and Te Maire Martin available).

Webster will keep a lid on things in camp…so there’s no reason we can’t get a bit carried away amid the euphoria of a win of that magnitude. The Warriors have climbed to fifth on the live ladder, have five of the last 10 matches at Mt Smart and one in Hamilton (though we’re winless in the Tron) and have only two games left against the current top six.

A top-four finish is well within their reach if tonight was anything like their base level moving forward and can get something like a first-choice 17 on the park – a luxury they haven’t really come close to yet in 2023.

For now, let’s put dreams of finals grandeur to one side and bask in another glorious chapter of an incredible renaissance.

Plenty of the podcast listeners have been asking post-match, so I’ll fill you in: I was meant to watch this one at my Raiders-mad mate Telly’s place, but one of his kids got COVID midweek so we had to pull the pin (supposedly…maybe he had an inkling a blowout loss was on the cards).

We did, however, watch the match with a few other boys over video conference (including Brad, who didn’t resurface after halftime). Needless to say, the second half was an absolute joy.

Warriors 36 (Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Tom Ale, Luke Metcalf, Wayde Egan, Shaun Johnson tries; Johnson 6 goals) defeated Canberra Raiders 14 (Jack Wighton, Josh Papali’i tries; Jarrod Croker 3 goals) at GIO Stadium, Friday, June 9th.


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