Maybe, just maybe, the New Zealand Warrior’s season isn’t a lost cause as many had believed a week ago.
Back then, they could not have played much worse. Tonight at AAMI Park in Melbourne, they were at their best as they caused a major upset by downing the Melbourne Storm in an 18-14 thriller.
Sometimes when a side has been playing poorly there is no suitable explanation for that sub-par form. They struggle to determine where the next good performance, let alone a win, will come from. But, then, for no apparent reason when it is least expected, they click and put on a display that no one saw coming. Them included.
Well, the Warriors just clicked. Ninth place on the NRL ladder they now inhabit. If they had lost to the Storm, their top eight chances would have started to look a somewhat forlorn hope. Now, though, they are close enough to realistically make a foray further up the table. Onwards and upwards for them. The conquest of the top eight is there for them if they are good enough. They will have only themselves to blame if they fail.
This was Rugby League at its best. It was end to end stuff. Just as one team had made a sweeping length of the field movement, the other would conspire to give as good as they took, having the tenacity to counter-punch and put on a show of their own. Between times they would find the strength to put on a display of the mightiest of defensive efforts. Hits that could be heard from afar such were the ferocity of many of the tackles.
The modern day player really is a marvel. Take Kristian Inu, for example. Many was the time that the Storm would terrorise the Warriors defence with pinpoint bombs only for Inu to out leap the incoming invaders. Saved his side time and again, he did. The Warriors bought a goodun there, that’s to be sure.
Inu wasn’t the only performer of high calibre though. Sam Rapira and Russell Packer weren’t content to leave the match unscathed from their bullocking runs up the middle of the park. Not far behind were the likes of Lewis Brown and Ukuma Ta’ai. In fact, it was hard to find a dud amongst either side such was the quality of the play. Very few errors were committed, and those that were made were more often than not of the forced variety.
Yes, all tastes were catered for. There was something for everyone to enjoy. Only society’s truly bizarre could possibly find something to quibble about amongst this splendid array of the rugby league senses.
With the lack of errors came the need for a clever kicking game. Melbourne’s Cooper Cronk was without peer. Nearly always, he would find space on a 5th tackle kick or put up a bomb on the last tackle that would come down within a metre of the Warrior’s goal line. Brett Seymour and James Maloney, for the Warrior’s, were good, in particular during the first half.
And it was in the first half that they were able to race to a substantial lead due to that good performance from the two halves. The kicking game of the halves, for now, was on song.
Melbourne, despite opening the scoring with a try to Beau Champion in the third minute, simply could not handle the Warrior’s for most of the opening forty minutes.
After having no ball at all for the first three hundred seconds, the Warrior’s dominated for the next thirty-five minutes. They showed just how good they can be. Forwards went straight up the middle for the majority of the time. The Storm couldn’t contain them. Packer, on occasions could be seen with four tacklers all over him, and yet they still struggled to bring him to ground.
With the forwards laying a solid foundation of positive go-forward, gaps were appearing around the fringes of the ruck for the backs as well as ball players in the mode of Feleti Mateo and Ta’ai to make in-roads. They did it with aplomb.
By the 22nd minute, the Storm had been on the back foot for the best part of fifteen minutes. With no ball to play with, they had to snap, and they did as Seymour put up a towering kick on the fifth tackle to Melbourne winger Matt Duffie’s right side defence. Spilled the ball he did and a grateful Inu pounced on the loose ball to dive over seven metres in from the touchline. Maloney missed the conversion, but, the Warrior’s were back in the game.
A penalty to Maloney three minutes later levelled the scores at six a piece. From here the Warrior’s put the pedal to the metal and forged ahead showing a touch of élan about their work. Style and vigour, they certainly possessed. The better they got, the more flustered Melbourne became. A case of role reversal seemed to be in play. For, the Warrior’s were doing a Melbourne on Melbourne. It was the visitors playing with a clinical precision in everything they did. From the constant unabated go-forward, to the quick play the balls, backed up by sharp dummy half running, a sparkling kicking game and a kick chase that took Billy Slater out of the equation on many an occasion. It was perfection.
And by the 29th minute the Storm cracked. Having worked their way forward in their usual industrious manner, the Warriors found themselves three metres out from the Storm’s goal line. From dummy half, Aaron Heremia gave a nifty little short pass to Jacob Lillyman, who found that he was in gap and having no one to mingle with, dived over under the crossbar with no fear of being harassed by the nowhere to be seen Storm defenders.
With a 12-6 lead and playing sublime football, the stars were aligning for the Warrior’s. All was good in their world.
It got even better three minutes later as the Warrior's form got even hotter. They had, in fact, turned the heat in the melting pot that is AAMI Park up to an untouchable boiling point for the Storm.
Into that pot went one tablespoon of Ukuma Ta’ai, a sprinkling of the Storm winger Anthony Quinn and one cup of Michael Luck. Give it a good stir and what you come up with is an attacking raid on the Warriors right side attack by Ta’ai who had the ball knocked from his grasp by Quinn, only for Luck- who was dutifully backing up on the inside- to dive on the loose ball for a four pointer and an 18-6 lead after Maloney had converted.
Cameron Smith kicked a penalty twenty seconds out from half-time which gave his side a glimmer of hope at 18-8. Anymore of a margin and a victory was getting close to being in the too hard basket.
The match was there for the taking for the Warrior’s. If they could continue on as they had for much of the match, they would be taking a colossal step on the road to finals football. It is only round seven, but their season was at the make or break stage already. Another loss and it would be a long road to hoe from here. A streetcar named desire was sitting ready to take them on the initial stages of their journey.
Did they want it badly enough? Were they going to hop in and starve off the inevitable fight back that the Storm would almost certainly mount?
You betcha they did.
It didn’t matter that they no longer were the attacking force that had controlled the first half of proceedings. Momentum was about to swing. Attack wasn’t going to capture a win for the New Zealand side. It was defence that would win the day. Teammates would have to stand side by side and fight for the common good. If one missed a tackle, another would need to cover. Never mind that the body was already aching from the ferocious pace of the match until now. That that same body was quietly but forcefully begging the mind to take heed of the searing pain penetrating its way through every fibre of its being.
That pain took a turn for the worse in the 44th minute when on a fifth tackle kick, Slater launched himself towards the heavens, knocking the pill back into the waiting arms of Cronk who dived over to touchdown five metres wide of the right upright. With Smith’s conversion, they had closed the margin to four points.
Now was the time for the Storm to throw everything they had at their foe. And they did. They had a field day down their left side attack. Each and every time they steered a course in this direction, they were to find space galore and overlaps there for the taking. Dane Nielsen was having a great time of it. The Warrior’s were constantly having trouble bring the centre to ground. But, their desperation showed through, as somehow, each time, they found a way to deny Melbourne scoring opportunities.
There was the time Inu diffused a bomb centimetres from his own line. Heart in the mouth stuff for the Warrior’s fans, but not he, for he gave no thought to self preservation as he calmly stood his ground in the face of numerous Storm marauders bearing down on him.
And in the 74th minute as Beau Champion was making haste for the Warrior’s in-goal area, it was none other than Inu who was on hand again to save the day along with Lewis Brown as they knocked the ball loose just as champion was about to dive for the try line.
On this night, this desperation summed up the New Zealand Warrior’s. It was one for all and all for one.
And this is why their final’s aspirations are still alive.