Just when it looked as if things couldn’t get much worse for the Warriors, on Sunday night they suffered their first home loss of the season, in a 21-14 defeat to the Storm at Mt Smart Stadium. The disappointment was all the more dramatic in that New Zealand managed to pull off the same late-game surge as in their opening clash against the Tigers. Behind until the 62nd minute, they rapidly rallied their spirits, only to be crushed by a field goal from Cooper Cronk, a try from Marika Koroibete and a conversion by Cameron Smith, all in the last three minutes. Before that, it looked as if we might be heading for the second Golden Point this round, making the Warriors’ record-breaking eleventh straight loss all the more agonising.
Of course, the Storm were also working through their issues in the wake of last week’s sombre news concerning Billy Slater’s viability in the game. Nevertheless, that just seemed to induce Cronk and Smith to prove that they were still dominant – as if that could conjure up Slater’s spirit in his absence – with a grubber from Cronk setting up Melbourne’s first try, and Smith getting the Storm back in front with a penalty goal in the 69th minute. Add to that Smith’s perfect kicking – especially clear against a pretty underwhelming effort from Shaun Johnson – and it’s clear that the Storm are still a force to be reckoned with, not least because they’re the only team that have managed to win their first three rounds in 2016.
In a football season when so much seems in flux, the, the Storm showed that consistency can be a virtue, striking the perfect balance between veterans and young guns, with Smith and Cronk syncing so perfectly that they pretty much allowed Cameron Munster to get away with pretending to be Slater, with a perfectly poised try in the first half seeming to channel some of Billy the Kid’s peculiar deftness. At the same time, Smith ushered in Koroibete’s first try, demonstrating once again why he’s considered prime captaincy material: his ability to exude consistency and stability is almost unmatched in the game.
If the Storm were consistent, then the Warriors conformed to every stereotype about their inconsistency and unreliability. Where Melbourne completed 34 out of 38 sets – a 89% completion rate – New Zealand only completed 75% and made most of their errors right when they were peaking in the second half. While they notched up a couple of classy tries from Solomone Kata and Jonathan Wright, Johnson was off, Issac Luke was out with a training injury and Manu Vatuvei was still recovering from his rib complaint. While Jazz Tevaga did quite a good job in Luke’s place, he wasn’t able to synergise with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as well, not that all that much synergy has taken place. In the last couple of weeks, it’s been interesting to see how the mainstream media has pulled back from speculation on the Johnson-Luke-RTS trio, a supergroup that has turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, at least so far.
Adding to all that was the fact that Ryan Hoffman was squaring off against his old club for the first time as New Zealand skipper, while the first try of the match – and arguably the best try – was scored by a Kiwi who happened to be playing for the Storm, with Kenny Bromwich making another argument for himself as one of the best emerging props in the competition. Given that Warriors prop James Gavet was put on report for what appeared to be a regular tackle on Cameron Muster, it was an unlucky and pointed night for New Zealand, with the atmosphere at Mt Smart stadium feeling decidedly low. Usually, a good game keeps you from noticing the empty pockets in a stadium, but on Sunday afternoon Mt. Smart seemed to get more and more deserted as the game proceeded.
With the Warriors now near the bottom of the ladder – an extraordinary position for such a talented group of players – it’s time for New Zealand to radically shake up their policy and strategy. On the other hand, the Storm need to work on maintaining the consistency they’ve demonstrated over these opening rounds, especially since Slater is now out of the picture. In previous years, the Michael Moore Trophy – up for grabs every time the Storm and Warriors go head to head – has often felt a bit arbitrary, but last night it felt as if these two teams indeed had a local rivalry, or at least the kind of rivalry and desperation that comes from being two outliers desperate to maintain their legacy.