A few weeks back, because of a discussion we had on the TWL pod featuring Corey Rosser, I delved into the voice recordings on my phone to retrieve an expletive-laden post-match interview with Jazz Tevaga after Manly had pumped the Warriors in Christchurch in early-2019.
I also stumbled upon a recording I made in the last round of that year, in the dying minutes of the also-ran Warriors’ remarkable final-round win in Canberra, spearheaded by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s try-of-the-year genius and a late strike from Blake Green.
Four years later, I only very vaguely remember hitting record, but I know why I did: I knew it was the last Warriors match I would watch with my old man. I’d relocated to Cromwell to help out after he got a terminal cancer diagnosis only a month earlier. Thought I’d capture our last moments with the team together.
Listening to it again was heartbreaking, uplifting, a little eerie. Dad’s quiet satisfaction with an amazing win – but no hint of melancholy that he’d just watched his beloved team for the final time – surged through me. He grinned away and we mused about RTS getting the three Dally M points and whether that would be enough to put him in contention for the medal.
Then he asked for some ice cream. Man he was a good cunt.
Not long before that I’d emailed Cameron George, to let him know a good bastard who has watched this team every week since March 10, 1995, was on his way out at just 66. From that, Stephen Kearney called us a couple of days before that game and – among other very touching sentiments – told us what the Warriors wanted to do as much as anything is win for the John Evanses and Sir Peter Leitches out there.
Dad died three months later as expected and the first three Warriors seasons without him were, largely, a punish for me personally. And everyone else. The club navigated circumstances that no other has. Ever. For three years. And they didn’t always do it well; there were bad decisions at the top and poor performances. There were pockets of promise and genuine highlights – the Payten-led late-season charge of 2020, the injection of Reece Walsh in 2021, Shaun Johnson’s dual golden point match-winners in 2022 – but it spiralled and was a strain on the supporters as well.
Last year was rock bottom for fans, the club and those rolling up the sleeves and trying to pull the team out of the mire.
What the Warriors have achieved in the past 12 months has to rank alongside the greatest turnarounds in the history of the premiership.
Second-best win-loss ratio in their history, first top-four finish in 16 years, first home final in a decade and a half that produced arguably the greatest day on home soil the Warriors have ever had. Shaun Johnson, who may still collect the unlikeliest Dally M Medal of all time next week, the headliner of a string of career-best seasons from improbable candidates. Andrew Webster, the NRL’s next great coach.
A cultural phenomenon that we’ll look back on in decades to come with fondness and bewilderment in equal measure. Up the fucken Wahs.
Speaking personally, every thrilling victory and jump up the NRL – and credibility – was tinged with emotion as I imagined how me and my Dad would frame it up in our formerly weekly debriefs about the Warriors’ state of play. Needless to say, this season would’ve been a hotbed of enthusiastic chat. And he would’ve been by my side at Mt Smart for the stunning beatdown of the Knights.
This astonishing renaissance will alleviate the initial sting of the Warriors’ 42-12 preliminary final hiding at the hands of Brisbane from the days, weeks and 2024 pre-season ahead – but right now it hurts. It definitely feels incongruous, a tad unfair…but the raw facts are they weren’t good enough on the night for a Broncos outfit that played with incredible speed, flair and exuberance, but also steely focus.
A 24-12 halftime scoreline could be countered by the stat that it was only four tries to three – but realistically the Warriors had been thoroughly outplayed and were on the ropes. Promising resistance early in the second stanza was brought undone by a horrific non-call of the most blatant forward in recent memory, allowing the Broncos to run away with it.
Coming into his first encounter with his former club and under a fair bit of scrutiny, Walsh was phenomenal. Six line-break assists and three try assists. A threat with almost every touch – and bouncing back spectacularly from a backfire that gifted the Warriors a try.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was a sensational buy for the Warriors in 2023 and a solid presence tonight after a near career-best display in the semi against Newcastle. But if the Broncos had a CNK clone in their No.1 jersey chances are this prelim goes down to the wire – Walsh’s high-risk, high-reward style continues to produce far more of the latter, regardless of the stage or the stakes and he was an X-factor the Warriors didn’t have a shit-show of matching.
It wasn’t the only individual mismatch to stand out, however.
Addin Fonua-Blake failed to break triple-figures in the run-metres department for the first time this season as Payne Haas provided a 228-metre, one line-break, three offload, 33-tackle (no misses) answer to the ‘who is the world’s best prop?’ question.
Skipper Tohu Harris, staggeringly good against the Knights, toiled diligently again at Suncorp Stadium. But he was outshone by fellow long-haired Adonis, Patrick Carrigan, whose dynamic impact was especially prevalent in the Broncos’ first-half charge that garnered four tries in the space in the space of 16 minutes.
It started so fever-dream-like promisingly for the Warriors. A spilled bomb from Jesse Arthars and a textbook right-side play to send Dallin Watene-Zelezniak diving in out wide for 4-0.
But Walsh’s first touch – a cut-out pass to put Selwyn Cobbo away – propelled the Broncos onto the Warriors’ line and, soon after, a soft dummy-half try for Billy Walters.
Walsh injected himself a few minutes later but DWZ was wise to it, plucking an intercept and running 60 metres for 8-6 and the club tryscoring record with his 24th of the year.
The ensuing period was torture, however, as rampant offloads ravaged the Warriors’ defence and opened up holes everywhere with Herbie Farnworth, Arthars and Walters again scoring in the space of seven pass-happy minutes.
24-8 after 24 minutes.
The Warriors regrouped and made it two-from-two in terms of visits to the Broncos’ end, Marcelo Montoya crossing after slick hands from another SJ-orchestrated movement.
Pompey’s third straight hook of a conversion left the Warriors 12 in arrears despite scoring only one less try, while the Warriors failed to complete their next three sets (the first two of which started in the Broncos’ half) in a diabolical finish to the half.
The Warriors started the second stanza sketchy as, again struggling to shut down the offload and only narrowly avoided tryscoring disaster. Then for the first time they got into the grind, put the Broncos under some pressure and stymied their go-forward to grab some territory wins.
The match was cruelly taken away from the visitors in the 54th minute when they again struggled to contain the Walsh threat, the will-o’-the-wisp fullback piercing through…and giving a pass that went metres forward. Referee Gerard Sutton and his touchies (who had earlier been so pedantic in pulling up a Wayde Egan pass from dummy-half that occurs 50 times a game) allowed play to go on and Jordan Riki finished off an ill-gotten, back-breaking try.
It only got worse as Pompey was binned for obstructed Kotoni Staggs on his run for a grubber to the in-goal. The call was fair…but hard to take given Staggs had been allowed to stay on the paddock for an early tackle on Pompey in the first half that had a far bigger impact on whether a try would have been scored.
Ezra Mam ploughed over in the ensuing set.
The ballooning scoreline aside, the Warriors showed some heart in the last 20 minutes to concede only one try – another Walsh-created effort for Farnworth to complete his double in the 69th minute – and come very close to bagging a consolation four-pointer in the latter stages.
There’s not too many Warriors you could pinpoint as disappointing – effort wasn’t the issue and everyone had a good moment or two, while no one bottled it completely at any stage. The Broncos were simply too hot, emphasised by a pivotal 23-13 offload count (that felt like 150 to about three) and an 11-4 line-break tally.
But leaking the most points and losing by their biggest margin of 2023 were a couple of jarring labels to wear on top of the devastating realisation of a grand final dream that went up in smoke in a bizarre, frantic 80 minutes.
So we go again next year, after ‘Webby’ and the boys do the hard work over the summer. With Roger back – holy shit, how good. Chanel, too…you would rate him an even chance of partnering SJ in 2024 after the other No.6s didn’t quite put a stamp on the position.
And then there’s the highly-impressive (despite frequent line-up interruptions due to the NRL squad’s injuries) NSW Cup side’s run to a prelim, with a host of mouth-watering talent threatening to spill over into first grade. There’s several candidates ready to remedy an apparent prop shortage and some outside-backs who are good to go.
The future’s so bright. Nothing’s guaranteed, but the pieces are there to achieve the ultimate success: a premiership. Maybe we’ll have a bit of a hangover and dip, maybe we’ll solidify our standing as the best of the rest and continue to serve our finals apprenticeship…maybe we’ll go all the way.
But never forget how this season made you feel – about the Warriors, about the mates and fam you connect over the team with, about life and how much better it is when they’re doing well. Those who loved the club that you’ve lost.
Because even when we win it all, nothing will ever be quite like the 2023 Warriors ride.
NRL PRELIMINARY FINAL
Brisbane Broncos 42 (Billy Walters 2, Herbie Farnworth 2, Jessie Arthars, Jordan Riki, Ezra Mam tries; Adam Reynolds 6, Reece Walsh goals) defeated Warriors 12 (Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2, Marcelo Montoya tries) at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane