Stakes were high for both the Tigers and the Warriors during Round 1. On the one hand, New Zealand haven’t won the first game of the season since 2009, haven’t won more than two out of their first five games over the last five years, and suffered arguably the most dramatic loss in the pre-season trials. Of course, there are some teams that take a while to get going – the Cowboys lost their first three games last year, and won eight of their games by a margin of six points or less. Nevertheless, there’s an additional pressure on the Warriors – and Andrew McFadden – to get Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to synergise. Over the last couple of years, it’s felt as if the Warriors have been given several opportunities to reinvent themselves, and each time they’ve fallen short. In many ways, then, this season feels like their last big chance for a long time – and certainly McFadden’s last chance in the coaching seat.
On the other hand, 2016 promises to be a bit of a make or break year for the Tigers as well, and not just because they’re still coming down from the fallout between Robbie Farah and Jason Taylor at the end of last year. If you’re looking for a trio to replace Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, then look no further than James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks – they’re easily better contenders than Johnson, Tuivasa-Sheck and Luke, even if they haven’t quite hit their stride. The problem is that the Tigers are in such a fragile state that there’s no guarantee that the club is going to be able to keep these players and really allow them to grow and thrive as a trio at Campbelltown and Leichhardt. Although it seems strange to think of it, 2016 may well be the last year Teddy, Brooks and Moses play with the same jersey, which is pretty agonising for this Tigers supporter to contemplate. On top of all that, Tedesco looks set for a breakout year if the trials are anything to go by, as well as a clear contender for Origin fullback if only he can stay shy of injuries.
There was a lot of drama in the air, then, on Saturday night. This was my first live game of the season, and the mood at Campbelltown Stadium was electric. One of the most atmospheric venues in the NRL, it’s perfect for this kind of late afternoon, daylight saving round, with the shade gradually moving across the field and the evening settling as the excitement escalated. The following day, I saw the Roosters take on the Rabbitohs at Allianz, and the difference couldn’t have been more pronounced. At a big venue, you might as well be watching it on television – in fact, you do watch it on the screen most of the time – while at a venue like Campbelltown you feel close enough to touch the field from any point in the stadium. That sense of local identity was all the more marked in that the away team were really an away team, although there was also a sense that the match had brought a lot of local Warriors fans out of the woodwork as well. It was a reminder that everything great about footy – the suspense, the community, the banter – is always best in a low-key, smallscale, grassroots venue.
That was a brilliant setting for what was arguably the most suspenseful game during this opening round. Leading 28-4 at the fortieth minute, the Tigers managed to rack up their highest every halftime lead at Campbelltown Stadium, thanks in large part to Mitchell Moses, who was responsible for setting up three of the first four tries and who more than upstaged Johnson in the first half, especially in beautiful passes to Curtis Sironen and David Nofoaluma. This time last year Moses was a rookie, but here he played like he had a whole career’s worth of experience behind him, really coming into his own as a half, and putting in what has to be his best single performance to date. In an NRL universe where injuries, movements and trades are more and more a part of the landscape, it’s easy to forget how much a player can get out of a single year of sustained footy. Even without Brooks as a partner in crime, Moses showed how much he had learned from playing virtually every game with the Tigers last year, establishing himself as a dominant force for the season ahead.
If Moses was the consistent factor throughout the game, then Tedesco’s moments of brilliance also kept the Tigers’ hopes alive and cemented them with a try in the last few minutes. While Taylor may have tried to throw water on any suggestion that the Tigers were becoming entertainers, there was nevertheless a sense in which Tedesco and Brooks were moving towards a more flexible, free-flowing and aggressive brand of footy that seems to be renewing itself across the board, especially at Canterbury-Bankstown. That gave the Tigers a fluidity we haven’t seen for a while, with Tim Simona scoring a beautiful try right under Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s nose before halftime. For a long time, I’ve felt that Simona is one of the most underrated players in the Wests’ stable, and seeing him outmanoeuvre this most slippery of fullbacks was an indication that 2016 may be something of a watershed year for him as well.
On the Warriors side, things started to look better in the second half, although they desperately needed to in order to prevent the Tigers’ win being the biggest upset of Round 1. In particular, Johnson came into his own in the second half, although he still doesn’t seem quite as fluid at five-eighth as he did at halfback, which is perhaps why the whole thing with Tuivasa-Sheck and Luke isn’t quite gelling either. For Warriors fans – as well as for Roosters and Rabbitohs fans – it must have been a bit unsettling to see both of these players suddenly devoid of charisma and presence on the field, and whether or not that has something to do with the New Zealand jersey will only become clear over the next couple of rounds. What is clear is that, with their ninth loss in a row and their seventh opening round loss, things are looking pretty bad for the Warriors, with Ben Henry’s knee injury seeming to recapture a whole era of failed New Zealand hopes. Named Rookie of the Year in 2012 and selected in the Kiwi side for the 2014 ANZAC Test, Henry nevertheless missed most of 2013 and 2015 with injuries and now looks set to miss most of 2016 as well. While he may not be quite up there with Johnson, he came of age with Johnson, and it’s a bit depressing to think they they might feel more like peers if Henry hadn’t been hit with such a bad run of luck.
Still, things weren’t all bad for the Warriors. In the second half, they scored three tries in nine minutes, which was the highest rate of any team during Round 1. At the same time, that erratic quality – brilliance and mediocrity in the space of forty minutes – has always been New Zealand’s greatest liability. If McFadden is going to keep his job and the Warriors are going to be real contenders this season there needs to be a complete change of strategy – or a solid strategy full stop, rather than the half-hearted, stop-and-start approach of Saturday night, which runs the risk of turning some of the most talented footy players in the NRL into cameos or, worse, placeholders.