The Warriors’ call to make eight changes to last week’s line-up with a top-four berth already sealed ended somewhat predictably, overrun 34-10 by a freewheeling Dolphins outfit on a steamy day in Brisbane.
But after appearing as if they were trying to bail out a sinking vessel with a thimble during a first half that finished 22-0, the Warriors flew out of the blocks after the break to cut the deficit to 12 points and and second stanza ultimately finished two tries apiece.
A few second-stringers put their hand up for a finals role if required, a top-liner or two raised some concerns for their aptitude for the massive games ahead and other first-choice players gave a solid account of themselves, as reflected in the Kingz Container Crew Warriors player ratings.
The upshot is the Warriors finish their watershed campaign fourth, their best effort ladder-wise since 2007, with the second-best regular-season record (16-8) and second-longest winning streak (seven matches) in the club’s history – and an away showdown against minor premiers Penrith to look forward to next weekend.
Special mention to the Warriors contingent who flooded into Suncorp Stadium (despite the lack of superstars in our side) for creating what seemed on TV like at least a 50-50 split in the stands.
1 TAINE TUAUPIKI: Appeared one of the few Warriors capable of busting the game open before they eventually found some holes in the Dolphins’ defence. Looks super-comfortable at this level and finished with 185 from 20 runs and was generally safe and composed at the back and under the high ball. 7
2 ED KOSI: Very solid display in his first NRL outing since injury cut him down at the same ground in Magic Round. Powerful out of yardage with 12 carries for 148 metres and jammed very effectively on a couple of occasions (though failing to stick on another sound jamming decision led to a match-sealing Dolphins try). Made a solid case for an unlikely finals recall. 7.5
3 ROCCO BERRY: Played with his knee heavily strapped and seemed like he was hampered for the most part (which would have been a strange call, given the wide-ranging resting policy). Heavy defensive workload with 21 stops, but missed five tackles, had a handling error, conceded a penalty and often looked a statue on D while also missing the assignment on kick-chase, the apparent bedrock of his game, a couple of times. A mere 30 metres on six runs completed a wholly underwhelming display on the eve of the playoffs – and if he’s much less than a hundy fit, it would be a big call to pick him with other options on the table. 5
4 ADAM POMPEY: Not perfect on either side of the ball, but certainly looked to step up for an inexperienced combination and was a contender for the Warriors’ best afield. A team-high 184 metres and six tackle-breaks from 14 runs featured a superb try assist for Montoya and a long bust in the latter stages, while his carries out of trouble were impressive. Made 18 tackles with four misses, having a bit of trouble with Valynce Te Whare but handling the task well for the most part. 7.5
5 MARCELO MONTOYA: Beaten glaringly one-on-one on at least a couple of occasions (finished with five missed tackles), but did plenty of good things, including: a fine finish to snap a six-match try drought; 18 runs for 184 metres; and some handy kick defusals. On balance, another step forward after a tough night out against Manly a fortnight ago. 7
6 TE MAIRE MARTIN: A mixed bag overall – including an intercept pass, three handling errors and getting stood up by Kodi Nikorima – but nevertheless a good blowout in his first top-grade game in almost five months. The right-side attack looked more potent with him in the saddle, most notably putting Josh Curran through a hole in the lead-up to their second try, and he stiffened up the edge defensively, making 23 tackles. The right pick in the No.6 for the finals, regardless of Metcalf’s availability. 6.5
7 RONALD VOLKMAN: The Warriors were always going to miss Shaun Johnson for the first time this season – and Ronnie didn’t get a lot of luck, while he was targeted in defence. Did almost all of the kicking, putting it out on the full when he was a metre or two from a 40/20 and put in a couple of sound grubber-in-chase efforts that were unfortunate to incur seven-tackle sets. Got the right-side attack firing a bit more in the second half. 6
8 BUNTY AFOA: Thought he may get more minutes in a depleted side but only played 33 across two stints. Certainly busier than usual with the ball, though, making seven runs for 70 metres, as well as performing his customary defensive sponge role (24 tackles, no misses) to ease some pressure on a side that was getting picked apart. 7
9 FREDDY LUSSICK: A notch below Egan in the crisp dummy-half service and option-taking departments, but held his own and scored a clever try as well as chalking up 30 tackles before heading to the bench with 15 minutes left. 6.5
10 MITCH BARNETT: Speaking of missing players, AFB’s absence was as glaring as SJ’s – but Barnett rolled up his sleeves and took the role of front-row cornerstone seriously. Racked up 17 tackles for 169 metres in 58 minutes (handy numbers for any NRL prop not named Addin or Payne) and reeled up 32 tackles. Looked good running attacking lines as well as taking the tough carries. 7.5
11 JOSH CURRAN: Another contender for best Warriors on the day. Played the full 80 and chalked up 14 runs for 173 metres, highlighted by a brilliant line-break to help set up Montoya’s try. But his effort plays were the overall highlight, producing some vital efforts among a game-high 36 tackles, as well as some super-tough, momentum-changing carries. This was the Josh Curran the fanbase fell in love with a couple of years back and it was a big confidence-booster ahead of a maiden finals series for a player who admitted 2023 had been a personal disappointment to date recently. 8
12 MARATA NIUKORE: Seemed intent on stepping up for a ragtag line-up, frequently bending the line back for 86 metres on eight runs and making 20 tackles in 51 minutes. Nothing spectacular – and made a poor defensive decision as O’Sullivan scored – but looks primed to make an impact in the finals as one of the few Warriors who has featured in the post-season regular in recent years. 6.5
13 DYLAN WALKER: The stand-in skipper struggled to have much impact in his first stint with the Warriors on their heels for most of it, but sparked the Warriors’ mini-revival with his ball-playing after returning. Some strong runs and very good defensively with 26 tackles in 48 minutes. Will be hoping to revert to his bench role next week but showed enough to suggest he’ll fill the jersey well if Tohu is ruled out. 6.5
16 BAYLEY SIRONEN: Showed his clear limitations on occasion, but certainly staked a claim to retain a seemingly tenuous spot in a first-choice 17 with a very industrious 60 minutes on the park. Worked his arse off for 33 tackles and 12 runs for 133 metres, with the most perpetually anonymous Warrior of 2023 really catching the eye on both sides of the ball. 7.5
17 TOM ALE: Fell out of the first grade side somewhat abruptly after Round 20 but put his hand up big time in his return, helping turn the tide with an amazing 12 runs for 143 metres in 33 minutes, plus 19 tackles without a miss. Only black mark was having the ball stripped by Jarrod Wallace, but regular troubled the Dolphins’ defence and came up with an absolute bell-ringer on Isaiya Katoa. Definitely ready for a finals call-up if required. 7.5
18 KALANI GOING: Absolutely looked like he belonged in a 35-minute NRL debut. The ex-Northland Taniwha looked every bit the rugged, energetic rugby league prototype with six runs for 67 metres and 18 tackles, making his impact felt with virtually every involvement. Gave away a penalty. 6.5
19 PAUL ROACHE: Jumping into dummy-half for the last 16 minutes to add the Roache brothers to the list of Warriors first-grade siblings, young Paul’s first notable moment was getting pinged for lifted an attacker above the horizontal. Few standout moments thereafter, making 10 tackles and zero runs. 4.5