Johnson orchestrates Warriors comeback
Benji Marshall received a hero's welcome but bade farewell to Leichhardt Oval on a sombre note tonight as Shaun Johnson compounded the misery of the Wests Tigers five-eighth by orchestrating a deserved 24-14 victory for the New Zealand Warriors.
The former Kiwis captain feared the crowd might turn on him in the aftermath of his decision to seek an early release from his contract, but the boos were exclusively directed to the Warriors and match officials as the visitors won at the Wests Tigers spiritual home for only the second time.
Unfortunately Marshall's 194th appearance for the club - and last at Leichhardt - was not among his most memorable as the 12th-placed Wests Tigers hopes of making the play-offs faded further.
Though Marshall was obviously the main attraction but Johnson, emerged as the influential playmaker by scoring a double, setting up the match-winner and extending his goal kicking sequence to 20.
The Warriors have now won six of their last seven matches.
Marshall was teary-eyed at kick-off and his vision might still have been blurred moments later when his inside ball to James Tedesco went to ground to gift the Warriors prime attacking position.
Wests Tigers muscled up in defence and in the sixth minute Marshall made amends when a sweet pass cut out two players before centre Blake Ayshford, in his 100th game for the club, put young wing David Nofoaluma over in Manu Vatuvei's corner.
Marshall's halves partner Curtis Sironen, who is destined for the back row when Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses eventually make the step up from the under-20s, also supplied a quality ball for Chris Lawrence, who bounced off Konrad Hurrell to double the Wests Tigers score.
The Warriors could make little impression as the Wests Tigers, buoyed by the emotional quotient produced by Marshall and Ayshford dominated.
It took until eight minutes before the break for the Warriors to profit from a set move when Ben Matulino backed into the defensive line, creating a gap for interchange forward Suaia Matagi who maintained his composure before giving Johnson an unimpeded run to the posts.
The score rewarded an improved performance but Auckland-born wing Tim Simona - one of the next generation locked into a new deal following Marshall's contractual impasse - provided a glimpse of the future when he palmed off Hurrell with ease and hared down the flank before chipping ahead and beating Kevin Locke to the touch down.
Marshall converted to close out a fluctuating opening 40 for the icon who could still do no wrong for the majority of the 11,436 crowd despite a couple of loose passes and a kick that flew out on the full.
Trailing 14-6 at the break, the Warriors reduced the deficit soon after the resumption when a Thomas Leuluai bounced up for Simon Mannering who flicked on to Hurrell.
Johnson put the Warriors in front for the first time with 25 minutes to play when he outstripped Adam Blair and Tedesco after grabbing a Lawrence knock on and racing 90-metres.
A Johnson grubber off an upright almost paid dividends but Mannering was ruled to have knocked on.
Johnson was also denied a treble when Simona punched the ball dead but the duo would not be denied when Johnson's nudge enabled his captain to beat Lawrence for the match-winner with 12 minutes remaining.
Winning coach Matt Elliott praised Johnson and hooker Nathan Friend for holding the Warriors together.
"Shaun's second-half performance, in particular, was really pivotal," he said.
"Shaun obviously came up with some pretty striking plays and I'm over the moon for him.
"He's starting to learn that the more responsibility he takes on, the better he plays."
Tigers veteran Liam Fulton said it had been a tough week for Marshall but refused to blame his impending departure as any excuse for the loss.
"He probably didn't know how the crowd were going to react to him," Fulton said.
"He was probably pretty emotional during the week, but we got on with the job and that probably wasn't the reason we lost.
"I thought he went alright."
Fulton said the Tigers were clinging to the mathematical hope of still making the playoffs.
"I know it's getting harder, but we're still positive," he said.
"We're still putting in each week and we still think we're a chance."
The Warriors remain in 11th place on the ladder, a win outside the top eight; their next assignment is hosting premiers Melbourne at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday.
The Storm will be refreshed by their second bye, which followed a State of Origin-depleted line-up's 39-0 loss to the Bulldogs in a replay of last year's Grand Final.
NZ Warriors 24 (Shaun Johnson 2, Konrad Hurrell, Simon Mannering tries; Shaun Johnson 4 goals) Wests Tigers 14 (David Nofoaluma, Chris Lawrence, Tim Simona tries; Benji Marshall goal). HT: 6-14
- Fairfax Media, AAP