After some strong preseason form, the New Zealand Warriors were expected to seriously challenge for a NRL title in 2011. Then, three straight losses to open their campaign and their form - along with their confidence - dived headlong into a quagmire of dropped ball, missed tackles and attacking ineptitude. That promise had turned to despair.
But, then, slowly but surely, they yanked themselves out of the murk that had engulfed them and, steadying the ship, prepared to make way as they set off in search of the utopia that is NRL glory. They’re not there yet, but their prospects are certainly looking up.
It was baby steps at first as they gradually got their game in order. Not a lot of attacking prowess to be found, initially. The unforced errors, though, were starting to be eliminated. Go-forward started to arrive in spades. Defence was stout. To be fair, it had been solid all along. But, attack, umm, not so great. Took a little while longer to fully click into gear. There were glimpses of what this side could achieve. But, still, there was and is room for improvement.
Even so, the Warriors had managed to win four from their last five outings. Life was looking up, despite the attack still not quite gelling.
Then...Boom, they exploded into the fully animated side that we all knew they were capable of being at Skilled Park today as they thumped the Gold Coast Titans, 34-14, in a comprehensive six tries to three win.
Here was a team that was making metres up the middle of the park with ease.
Offloading in the tackle appeared to be the flavour of the day as their legion were prepared to do the deed in all four corners.
Stuck, they did, too. Not a dropped ball amongst them.
Then there was that attack. Emanated, it did, out of their being like a hyperactive bull with pent-up frustration ready to rampage its way over any unfortunate soul mindless enough to get in its way.
Sharp, focused and a steely eyed as it set its sights on the opposition in-goal area.
It was eager, impatient even, the sun was shining and it didn’t take long to make hay either.
Ninety seconds into proceedings, with a pack minus an injured Sam Rapira and Aaron Heremia, they rumbled their way into their foe’s red zone for James Maloney to put a bomb up on the last tackle. Manu Vatuvei-back from injury-knocked the ball back for Feleti Mateo to gather and offload to Kiwi’s lock, Lewis Brown, to dive over in the tackle, ten metres wide of the left upright.
Maloney converted. It was the perfect start. 6-0 and the Warriors looked like they had come with their game faces on.
Their test players, included.
Ben Mautalino and Lance Hohaia (who was replaced at fullback by Kevin Kocke- fine game he had too) came off the bench and added plenty of spark. Then there was Brown and Captain, Simon Mannering, who both had splendid games. Looked like they hadn’t played for seven days, so sprightly were they.
While Gold Coast scored twice over the next twelve minutes with two individual tries to winger, David Mead, the Warriors always looked to have the measure of the Titans.
Defensively, the Warriors were handling most of what the home side was throwing at them with relative ease. Physically they looked the stronger. Their go forward had more impact than that of their opposites. And they didn’t make such howling errors as the likes of Titans lock, Ashley Harrison, who knocked-on from the restart in the 17th minute.
From the ensuing the scrum the Warriors spread the pill to their left side attack where there was a beast- Manu Vatuvei- waiting, keen as mustard and bright-eyed with avid anticipation of the delights of entering the try scoring fray after so long on the sidelines. That he succeeded was of no huge surprise, as the man mountain rarely fails in his quest to demoralise opposing players with his try scoring feats.
Now that they had regained the ascendency, the skies to the north were clearing as the Warriors set forth with intent on an expedition to freeze their adversary’s out of the contest.
Preston Campbell has had many great days in rugby league over a long and extensive career.
This wasn’t one of them, as the Titan’s fullback muffed a bomb that was detonated by the boot of Maloney in the 24th minute. The Warriors player of the season thus far, Kristian Inu, was on hand to gather the loose ball and offload to Mannering who scored 20 metres in from the left touchline.
With the conversion came a 16-8 lead that they would not surrender.
Another eight minutes along the wondrous adventure that is life, young second rower, Elijah Taylor, extended that lead when he scored one of the more bizarre tries that one is ever likely to view. Having run ten metres on the diagonal and appearing to be tackled initially, he rose to his feet to hear the referee saying to play on. While the Titans stood around looking bemused, thinking they had completed the tackle, Taylor strolled over for the try and a 22-8 lead after the conversion.
That’s what you call playing to the whistle.
So far the Warriors were by far the better side. From their kicking game to committing less unforced errors, they had it over the Titans.
One side was playing like they were on the way up. The other was displaying why by the end of the match it would be in 13th position on the points ladder.
That said, the Warriors spent the first ten minutes of the second stanza doing their darndest to let the Titans back into the match.
Whether it was sloppy work on their behalf bringing the ball out from their own red zone in the form of offloads only two metres from their goal line, or Maloney getting tackled on the fifth tackle when there was ample opportunity to get a metre gaining kick in, they were up for making life hard on themselves.
Eventually the added possession the Titans had gained from the visitor’s poor play told as Mead crossed for his third try of the afternoon in the 50th minute.
Having lapsed back into some of their bad habits from the first few rounds, the Warriors gathered themselves as they delved deeply into their reservoir of metal fortitude in an effort stop any rot from entering their game.
Gone were the inappropriate offloads for the time being. Here now was a conservative approach with good hard straight running up the middle of the ruck, backed up by a kicking game from Maloney and Brett Seymour that began to find space, just like it had in the first half. Top that up with a rigorously enthusiastic kick/chase and, sure enough it wasn’t long before they were back in the familiar position of dominating the state of play.
Scoring chances didn’t come their way immediately. But, now was the hour, when...Boom...they were back on attack with the utmost precision.
A short drop-out from Campbell went wrong for the Titans as Taylor got his mitts on the ball on the 20m line, stepped off his left foot and scurried his way towards the posts on a forty-five degree angle to meet up with a straight running Maloney who took a neat little pass from his mate and dived over under the crossbar to put his team out to a fourteen point margin.
Only four minutes later, Maloney was back in the thick of it, as...Boom...from a quick restart, Kevin Locke makes five metres before putting Maloney into a gap, who, while displaying speed that may have surprised more than a few, discovered that the enemy territory was barren, allowing him to enjoy his journey to the goal line free from unwanted defensive wannabees as he scored his second try for a personal haul of eighteen points.
Sixty-four minutes, a twenty point margin and the guests may have put an end to the Titans top eight hopes for this season.
Their own hopes and aspirations, though, are well and truly alive. Improve each week they continue to do. And the need for that can’t be underestimated. Momentum is crucial. Get on a roll and self belief soars. Just try stopping a team that is playing well and genuinely believes in themselves. Luck, amazingly, suddenly starts to go their way. The Warriors have now won five of their last six matches. A team that wins two, and then loses two, can never hope to build the necessary confidence to get on a roll that is required to win a premiership.
And the New Zealand Warriors are one of only four or five sides winning regularly.