As quickly as another campaign was written off as an underachieving mess mired in inconsistency, subpar individual form and off-field incidents, the Warriors breathed new life into their 2016 season with a stunning 36-18 defeat of Brisbane on Saturday night.
It was a performance long-suffering Warriors fans have been crying out for – one the team on paper has always been capable of, but a display that seemed further away than ever after a pathetic 26-point hiding in New Plymouth at the hands of Canberra two weeks ago.
It was fantastically Warriors-like to rebound so spectacularly from a terrible game (or on the flipside, abysmally from a good win), but there was more to this effort.
They reverted to a familiar, freewheeling style as coach Andrew McFadden loosened the suffocating attacking structures that have held them back. But his team didn’t abuse that privilege of flexibility, playing what was in front of them and picking their moments to offload and swing the ball wide. Everything they did with the ball was done with purpose.
It had a flow-on effect on the rest of their game. The Warriors’ defence was aggressive, organised and committed, and they were disciplined with and without the ball.
The Warriors spoke afterwards of bringing the fun back to footy – on the training paddock and in the 80 minutes where it counts – and it paid extraordinary dividends.
The Broncos were undeniably flat in the wake of Origin I, while they were without two of their best performers in Queensland guns Corey Oates – whose replacement, Lachlan Maranta, had an absolute shocker – and Matt Gillett.
But they weren’t allowed to get into the contest by a fizzing Warriors outfit. Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt threatened to bust the game open and generate a comeback on several occasions, but the Warriors’ scrambling was excellent.
Tries to Adam Blair and Jordan Kahu would have sparked a jittery Warriors implosion in the past, but instead they surged after both Broncos tries. Perhaps the most impressive section of the game for the Warriors was the period straight after halftime – the Broncos had finished the first 40 in ominous touch, but the hosts regrouped and virtually sealed the result at 28-6 with a pair of tries inside the opening six minutes of the second stanza.
It was one of the few times in the last couple of years they’ve stitched up a result with more than 10 minutes remaining, the Warriors traditionally making their nerve-shredded fans wait until the 80th to breathe easy.
Shaun Johnson was the fulcrum of the turnaround. So bewilderingly reluctant to run in recent outings for the Kiwis and the Warriors, the brilliant halfback dummied his way through for the first try and almost everything he touched turned to gold thereafter.
Johnson put himself up for potential ridicule by being interviewed by Tony Veitch in the lead-up to the match and using the opportunity to rail against the negative media scrutiny on the team and social media abuse, but he backed up his sentiments with his best game since that devastating leg injury in Round 18 last year.
He took the line on, chanced his arm and played far more direct. Maintaining that confidence and intent is paramount for the Warriors to get on a roll, but it felt like a turning point for the No.7 – and it had a palpable domino effect.
Thomas Leuluai had his finest game in the halves since his outstanding 2013 return to the club. Issac Luke was electric out of dummy-half during the first half, running the ball seven times and regularly finding gaps, while also setting up Jacob Lillyman’s try with a nifty grubber.
Luke earned an early mark after 52 minutes, after which Nathaniel Roache – who is set for an engrossing long-term battle with fellow rookie Jazz Tevaga for the bench utility role – produced an eye-catching display.
If Johnson was man-of-the-match, Tuimoala Lolohea wasn’t far behind. He made two line-breaks, produced a try assist, ran for a game-high 183 metres, and came up with some breathtaking defence-into-attack efforts under pressure at the back.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s injury was a savage blow, but make no mistake: Lolohea is a representative-quality fullback replacement. Now that the 21-year-old can look forward to the rest of the season in the No.1 role – rather than bouncing around the backline based on the fitness and form of others – he will go to another level.
Ben Matulino, precariously close to losing his spot in first grade after a string of insipid showings, led the pack superbly coming off the bench, carrying the ball 16 times and rediscovering his dangerous offload. Young enforcers Albert Vete, Sam Lisone and Charlie Gubb fed off Matulino’s rejuvenated form.
Workhorse backrow trio Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman and Simon Mannering can seem a bit too similar at times, but they showed how damaging they can be when they produce at the same time. Thompson and Hoffman poured through holes on the edges, while Mannering was outstanding in the middle, offloading in tackles and acting as a link man.
Even Blake Ayshford, a social media punching bag throughout 2016 and so comically bad against the Raiders he seemed certain to feel McFadden’s axe, was solid at right centre.
Reed and Maranta making Blake Ayshford look like a superstar #NRLWarriorsBroncos
— Az (@JolleyAz) June 4, 2016
But it’s the unleashing of the Warriors’ young, super-gifted outside backs that brought the Mt Smart Stadium crowd to their feet on Saturday night.
Konrad Hurrell’s departure will always be one of the great ‘what ifs’ in the Warriors’ turbulent player retention narrative, but in Solomone Kata they have a centre who is far more consistent and reliable, a better defender, and only slightly less destructive with the ball in hand.
Pegged as a defensive weak link during his 2015 rookie season, Kata has improved immeasurably without the ball, shutting down the likes of Blake Ferguson, Jamie Lyon, and now James Roberts with aplomb.
The nuggetty Tongan’s effort in steamrolling Queensland Origin fullback Darius Boyd on his way to the try-line – taking his season tally to nine in just 11 appearances – was reminiscent of the ‘Hurrellcane’ (‘Kata-strophic’, perhaps?).
— NRL (@NRL) June 4, 2016
David Fusitu’a bagged a brilliant double, the first one of those seemingly-impossible put-downs pulled off with incredible regularity in the 21-year-old’s NRL career, which is only 21 games old.
The rangy flyer is more than just a finisher – he goes looking for work and has great football sense, while he has also excelled at centre and fullback – but he could become one of the game’s most devastating wingers working down narrow corridors off Johnson and Lolohea.
It wasn’t a vintage display by any stretch – and his lackadaisical in-goal effort gifted Jordan Kahu a try – but the effect Manu Vatuvei’s return had on the side can’t be understated.
Granted, anything keeping the hapless Jonathan Wright out of first grade has to be a positive, but Vatuvei’s presence on the flank is like a security blanket for the Warriors. He’s a club legend, a big personality and a leader on and off the field – someone rookies and veterans alike feel better for having alongside them in the trenches.
‘The Beast’ will only get better, too, after shaking off the rust from a month on the sidelines; his at-the-ready army of critics can suck on his 148 tries in 216 games and colossal metres-gained tallies.
No one deserved the result more than McFadden, however. The embattled coach clearly has the respect of the players, who have let him down too often. His job well and truly on the line, the likeable ‘Cappy’ was savvy enough to tinker with his game-plan and line-up – though stopping short of throwing the baby out with the bathwater – and he came up trumps.
— Andrew Barker (@AndrewBarker21) June 4, 2016
Of course, it will all be for nought – and this article would have been embarrassingly pointless – if the Warriors don’t account for the NRL’s two bottom sides in the next fortnight: Newcastle at Hunter Stadium and Sydney Roosters back at Mt Smart.
The club’s recent history is littered with too many false dawns to get ahead of oneself, but one of the beauties of the Warriors is they are such a talented outfit sometimes all they need to get on a roll is one tipping-point performance, rather than having to slowly work their way back into form.
Arguably their best game in a couple of years coming on the back of one of their worst is a case in point.
In a log-jammed middle section of the ladder (the Warriors are just one win off seventh), they can use the breakthrough win over the Broncos as a platform to launch a finals charge.
Cynics will continue to deride the flaky Warriors as pretenders, but for the faithful it was a tantalisingly sample of what could lie ahead for the NRL’s most inscrutable club.