Warriors make statement with red-hot win
BEN STANLEY AT MT SMART STADIUM
In years to come, the league almanacs will tell the basics: that the Warriors beat the Storm 30-22 at Mt Smart Stadium yesterday.
In reality, it was so much more. It was a statement of intent. A five-try shot across the bows of the NRL from a side who have now won seven of their last eight matches - and have just downed the reigning premiers.
Moments, from both sides, were everywhere. Ngani Laumape's beautiful first-half team try, and Will Chambers' astonishing chase down of Shaun Johnson to deny the Warriors halfback a runaway spring instantly to mind.
Two shine brighter than the rest in the wash-up, though. The disallowing of a Justin O'Neill try 25 minutes into the first half was crucial. O'Neill crossed the line, only to fumble the ball due to a knee in the shoulder by Warriors fullback Kevin Locke.
While there was a fair chance O'Neill may have actually applied pressure on the ball, video referee Steve Chiddy handed the Storm a penalty for Locke's knee in the tackle when a penalty try would have been fair. The Storm wouldn't score from the resulting set - and the Warriors would go on to finish the half 14 points ahead.
The second came forty minutes later, when Smith took a penalty shot at goal to even up the scores - and missed.
"I know I'm in purple, but I found it hard to believe when they disallowed the try, to be honest," Storm coach Craig Bellamy said, of O'Neill's disallowed try.
"I thought it looked like he might have dropped it - but to me, I don't know whether he lost full control of it."
Bellamy didn't bemoan that moment however. He knew his side had been rocks and diamonds. Perfectly structured from set-play, their performance lacked general execution, with five tries bombed overall.
Sure, they came out firing in the opening stages of the second half, with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk running the Warriors' defensive lines ragged, particularly on the right. Four pointers to Slater, Cronk and Blair in the second stanza are reflective of that. They always looked in with a chance, despite being behind on the scoreboard the whole match.
"We had chances to win, but we couldn't quite hit the front," Bellamy said.
"If we'd hit the front we might have been able to hang on. But like I say, we had plenty of chances and we probably didn't take those chances with two hands.
"We probably tried putting one hand on them and, basically, it didn't work for us."
Laumape scored a double, centre Konrad Hurrell scored a important tension-letting second half effort and Mannering was made of stone on defense - but it was the performance of Thomas Leuluai was the biggest key in the Warriors' victory, played in front a massive 20,152 crowd.
Hard-working throughout, the standoff was creative as a fifth tackle kicking option and directed the Warriors' back line with maturity. His slow start to the season has matched that of his team - but now both are headed in the right direction: the NRL top eight.
Speaking in the absence of coach Matt Elliott, who has been battling a stomach bug this weekend, Warriors assistant coach Andrew McFadden talked up Leuluai's efforts.
"I know Shaun is the flashy one, but Thomas really gives us the guidance on the field," McFadden said.
"He's really solid defensively. He really typified our performance today. He competed in everything."
The inclusion of Warriors utility Dominique Peyroux's mid-way through the second stanza was important.
Pushing Hurrell to the wing, Peyroux added defensive steel when it was needed most.
Cronk would eventually break through to make the last minutes tense for the Warriors - before Locke crossed in the final seconds.
Leuluai said it was only then he felt comfortable about the result, before talking about his side's defensive frailities.
"They were breaking us so easy on the edge," he said. "It's definitely something we've got to look at because they are a quality team.
"If you want to play at the back end of the year, you've got to play and you've got to win. I thought there was a couple of tries where we got beaten cleanly on the edge."
On such a significant game in the context of their NRL season, the most telling thing about this Warriors side was Leuluai's eagerness to talk about the need to address defensive ills.
Yes, the Warriors are wild and unpredictable - still. But winning pretty isn't good enough: there is now a real hunger to address the flaws in even their best performances.
That's the scary thing for the rest of the NRL. The Warriors are the most red-hot team in first-grade, but they are primed to get much better.
Warriors 30 (N Laumape 2, T Leuluai, K Hurrell, K Locke tries; S Johnson 5 goals) Storm 22 (J O'Neill, B Slater, M Blair, C Cronk tries; C Smith 3 goals)Ht: 18-4
What did you make of the Warriors' ninth-place finish in 2014?