It was a hat-trick that set the tone for the New Zealand Warriors. A treble that would define their eighty minutes of footballing endeavour. Possibly, it may even have taken them down their path of destiny for the 2011 season.
Their opposition for the occasion, St George, did their utmost to assist the Warrior’s in their hat-trick escapades in front of 11651 fans at Mt Smart Stadium.
Errors in the form of dropped ball were helping them accrue a handy lead early on in the fixture. It was a lead that was never to be surrendered as they dominated play and one that never looked like being seriously challenged by their rival.
The extra possession worked a treat as they punched holes in their foes defensive line with relative ease. Offloading at will they were, with a desperate opponent seemingly at a loss to come to grips with their strength in the tackle, thus finding no satisfactory solution to closing down the ball carrier’s room to offload.
It was creating problems all over the park and it told on the scoreboard. For, come the 25th minute, three mistakes from the Warriors and St George had acquired themselves an 18-0 lead.
The home side came with the best of intentions, and for the first couple of defensive sets, they ripped into the Dragons. Three men could be seen in the tackle regularly. Clear, it was, that they had come with the objective of imposing their will on a St George side that had taken a pounding in the previous round from an on-fire Cronulla side.
Whatever the effects of six days ago, St George commandeered all their mental and physical strength. First, the mental as they took everything dished out to them, then the physical, as they quickly absorbed the fire and brimstone of the Warriors and set about stamping their own mark on the game.
Didn’t take them long either. In fact, only four minutes as they made the most of a fumble by Sam Rapira. St George halfback, Jamie Soward has come a long way under the tutelage of coaching great Wayne Bennett. Gone are the days of inconsistent play on his part. Now, he produces each and every week. A bag full of tricks, he possesses, too. Whether it be a cut-out pass, the ability to put his outside backs through a gap in the defence, a momentum changing 40/20, or perhaps, a fifth tackle bomb on the opposition’s goal line with pinpoint accuracy. On this particular occasion he chose the latter as he launched a bomb that came down within half a metre of the Warriors goal line for winger Jason Nightingale to out leap Lance Hohaia and dive over two metres to the side of the right upright for the first of his tries for the day.
The two aforementioned protagonists had lead roles in the next major chapter of the contest some nine minutes later. Earlier it had been Rapira guilty of poor ball security. Now it was Hohaia’s turn to cough up the pill. This gave Nightingale a chance to add to his try scoring tally. First, though, he would have to dispense some unwanted company in the form of James Maloney.
Maloney, a cheeky halfback type with a lot to say for himself isn’t that fond of flashy opposition wingers. Not the types to get along too well, really. Unfortunately for Maloney though, the twain did meet fleetingly as Nightingale bumped him off with considerable ease on his way to his second try of the afternoon. With Soward’s conversion they were now up 12-0 and looking like good things.
The Warriors good defence early on had made a hasty departure, as St George made ground wherever they ventured. Up the middle of the ruck, out wide, it didn’t matter where they went, territory was to be found. Former Warrior Nathan Fien was having a great time of it, darting out of dummy-half, toying with his former team mates, making yards that were having Warriors players backpedalling at a great rate of knots.
None of this impressed Warriors coach, Ivan Cleary, though, as he hooked centre Joel Moon from the field in the 20th minute. He only got back on sometime later due to a knee injury to his centre partner Jerome Ropati. It doesn’t bode well for one’s future tenure in a position, though, to be taken from the field this early in the match. Perhaps an opportunity exists for young up and coming star, Elijah Taylor, in the weeks to come.
St George soon got their hat trick of tries from the hat trick of errors on the part of the Warriors, as big off-season buy, Feleti Mateo, disrespected the steeden in the 25th minute. Fien, again, did damage as he fractured the dummy half defence of the locals and sped his way up the centre. The little maestro Soward was again on hand to direct proceedings as he navigated play to their left side attack leaving Matt Cooper to dive over in the corner despite the best efforts of three hangers-on.
So, 18-0 up and St George had totally dominated. Here we had two sides in the same competition, but two sides, certainly at this stage, consisting of abilities at different ends of the spectrum.
The Dragons, a well oiled machine going about their work in an efficient manner, committing limited errors, getting to the end of sets of six in a no nonsense mode with a excellent long kicking game on the part of Soward who invariably finds turf unaccompanied by opposition backs. And then there is, more often than not, a professional kick chase put into operation which all sides should aspire to. All for one and one for all, with this lot.
This is most unlike the Warriors of present who struggle to complete a set of six at times without the inevitable handling errors. When they do get to a last tackle kick it seems to go down the opposing fullback’s throat with monotonous regularity.
Last week the Warriors struggled with their kicking game as regular kicker, Maloney, was missing due to suspension. Back this week, he was, and yet nothing had improved.
It was now becoming clear, for whatever reason, this was a side that was out of sorts. Their A-Game had deserted them. Confidence had upped sticks and sort out others it thought of as more deserving.
Self doubt had entered their world. Try as they might, nothing seemed to work. The only surprise was that St George were unable to put any further points on the Warriors for the remainder of the half.
Even more surprising was the fact that the home side actually scored in the 48th minute when Ben Mautalino crashed over to score under the crossbar.
Surprising, really, because the Warriors had, to that point, shown absolutely nothing on attack. The majority of the time their last tackle play seemed to consist of a high kick to one of their wingers.
In fact, it seemed that their attacking fortitude more resembled a ne’ve do well, such was the apparent ineptitude spouting from their attacking tentacles.
That said, at 18-6, there was a sniff of hope, if they could find a way into St George’s in-goal area. A match of it they could then make. It wasn’t to be, though.
Instead it was the visitors who extended their lead after gratefully pouncing on a Hohaia error in his red zone.
After copious amounts of offloading on the part of the Dragon’s, they soon spread the pill to the left side attack of Brett Morris. Even under duress he was able to offload to Kyle Stanley who dived over in the left corner to extend the lead, with a Soward conversion, to 24-6 after fifty-three minutes.
Four tries to St George and all four coming immediately after errors on the part of the locals. An obvious pattern there, one would suggest. If only the Warrior’s could hang onto the ball and get parity of possession. Maybe, then, they could at least make a game of it.
Eventually it came on the end of a string of penalties. Surprisingly not one was awarded in the first half to either side. Now was the chance the Warriors had waited so long for. Momentum was starting to swing the home side’s way. Feleti Mateo was putting himself about. Doing his damndest to turn things around, he was. Now, instead of St George being responsible for all the offloading, it was Mateo doing his bit for his side. Along with the likes of Mautalino-who was the best on the park for the home side- and Lewis Brown, they forged ahead, taking control for a ten minute period from the 65th minute.
With all the possession against them, St George committed a series of penalties, which eventually forced referee Ben Cummings to send Cooper to the sin-bin. One man down and with no ball for much of this time, it was only a matter of when, not if the Warriors would score. And sure enough it came in the 74th minute as Shaun Berrigan crossed to touch down next to the left upright. With the conversion from Maloney and the score back to within two converted tries, there was a slim chance of sending the match into extra time.
That it didn’t materialise was in part due to Soward kicking a field goal in the 77th minute. 25-12 and the game was now beyond the Warriors.
Soward had well and truly stomped on the comeback embers that had glimmered ever so slightly for the Warrior’s over the last quarter of the match.
Now they are 0-3 and planted firmly to the nether regions of th
e points table. A long way back from here for them, it is. Not necessarily impossible, though. Bigger turnarounds have embellished the great game of rugby league. Penrith, in 2003, lost their opening five matches of the season and then went on a winning rampage of twenty-three matches to win the premiership.
So, done before, it clearly has been.
And it may well need to be in the future, too.
Come what may, the only way out of this for the New Zealand Warriors is hard work and perseverance.