Round 4: New Zealand Warriors v. Newcastle Knights (Mt Smart Stadium, 28/03/16)

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For a moment there, it looked as if the showdown between the Warriors and the Knights at Mt Smart Stadium on Monday afternoon was going to be the biggest upset of the season. While it was one thing for the Warriors to lose to the Storm or the Broncos, it was quite another thing for the prestige combination of Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to lose to the projected cellar-dwellers, a team who had suffered a Golden Point tie at their home ground the previous weekend, and a staggering 48-6 loss to Souths the week before. Yet that’s what looked likely to happen in the first forty minutes, with Newcastle gaining the kind of lead that made you wonder just how spectacularly inept the coaching, management and executive culture must be at the Warriors to mishandle such a bevy of raw talent.

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Fortunately for New Zealand, the Warriors made the kind of late surge that has been characteristic of their game so far this season, although in this case they also followed through with a resounding 40-18 victory that felt as if it was also a vindication of the big Auckland threesome as well, if only because they’d come so close to being permanently discredited by a loss to the Knights. In fact, the turning point came from a hattrick of tries from Blake Ayshford, Tuimoala Lolohead and Manu Vatuvei in the first twelve minutes of the second half, although both Shaun Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck were a critical part of the Warriors effort as well.

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On the one hand, RTS got New Zealand off to a rousing start with a deft pass to Solomone Kata, setting up the first try of the game in the third minute. Despite a fairly error-laden opening forty minutes of football, the Warriors would probably have been out in front pretty quickly if Manu Vatuvei’s try a couple of minutes later hadn’t been deemed ineligible by the bunker, thanks to an apparent knock-on with Kata. It’s clearer than ever that New Zealand’s next Big Three can’t function without Vatuvei’s speed and power: while Issac Luke was also back on board for the first time in a couple of weeks, it was the big winger who stole the show and worked best with Johnson and RTS, especially once Luke allowed Sam Mataoroa to get through a pretty flimsy tackle in the ninth minute to bring the Knights back into the picture.

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Nevertheless, for all Roger the Dodger’s dexterity, it was Shaun Johnson who really stole the show, bookending the New Zealand comeback with a deft conversion three minutes before the break, off a brassy try from Ben Mautolino, and a six-pointer in the 65th minute that turned out to be the jewel in the Warriors’ crown. When Johnson is a playmaker, he’s really a playmaker, and Monday’s match felt like the first time that he’s really hit his stride this season. For such a young player, he carries himself like a veteran – he’s real captaincy material – and it was his focus and conviction as much as his work in the halves that prevented the Warriors suffering their ninth straight loss in a row, as well as a record-breaking four straight losses in the opening rounds of the competition.

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For all that this will probably be a watershed moment for New Zealand in the 2016 season, the Knights didn’t go down without a fight. While both sides had sloppy moments, the match had the peculiar desperation and intensity of two teams who have yet to win a game. No matter how it ended, one team was going to come away winless, and while that would have been utterly disastrous for the Warriors, there was a lot at stake for the Knights as well. It must have been some relief to Newcastle fans, then, to see the team put in a relatively solid performance, both in attack and defence, in the first half, even if they ended up with only 39 percent of possession after a dominant Warriors’ effort in the back forty minutes.

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Nevertheless, Trent Hodkinson showed a fairly consistent game and great presence as a captain under fire, even if he hasn’t quite synced up with Jarrod Mullen yet. Similarly, while RTS might have the star power, it’s worth remembering that the Knights also have an Origin-level fullback in their midst, with Dane Gagai taking the lead with a try midway through the opening half, in what was probably the high point of the game for Newcastle. Even after Johnson’s climactic try, the Knights didn’t quite give up hope, with Nathan Ross smashing through two tackle and eluding RTS to bring the ball to ground in the last five minutes.

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All in all, then, the sense of relief was probably stronger than the sense of victory as far as New Zealand were concerned. While Andrew McFadden may have said the Warriors were weaker than in their matches against the Broncos and the Storm, I’m not so sure: there might have been more errors on Monday afternoon, but it felt as if the team only really gelled as a team during this round, partly because it was the first time this season that the threesome of Johnson, Luke and RTS have started to get into gear, even if Luke was fairly sluggish. After all, it’d be pretty hard for McFadden to acknowledge that his took his best game of the season so far to beat the best contenders for wooden spooners.

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Still, stakes are going to be high for the Warriors when they travel to Central Coast Stadium next round. Fresh off two straight weeks at Mt Smart, they’re going to have to prove themselves in a different kind of way against a Roosters outfit who are smarting from their Round 4 loss, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the chips fall. On the other side of the ball, Newcastle are travelling again to AAMI next week to take on the Storm, a pretty intimidating prospect after this weekend’s loss, and a pretty intense pair of commutes back-to-back. As a longtime Bulldogs supporter and a particular fan of Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds, it’s been hard to see Hodko punching so far below his weight this season – in so many ways, it feels as if he deserves to be at the forefront of the renewed Canterbury-Bankstown effort that has turned the Dogs into the best New South Wales outfit so far this season. Without Reynolds as his partner in crime, he feels a little lost, especially now that Daley’s renewed interest in Mitchell Pearce makes the two halves unlikely to meet again at Origin in the near future. Whatever happens next week, here’s hoping, then, that Hodko continues to build the kind of home at Newcastle that he deserves.

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