While NRL each team has a connection to their home ground, few are as visceral or as vital as those held by Sydney City and New Zealand. As the only Kiwi outfit in the competition, the Warriors have a special relationship with Mt Smart, which in its own quiet way is one of the NRL’s biggest fortresses. On the other hand, the Roosters have long claimed to be the premium Sydney team, turning Allianz into the premier Sydney venue, especially since – unlike ANZ – it has such a vital proximity to the CBD itself. In an era in which bigger and more anonymous venues are becoming the norm, the Chooks are way ahead of the curve, since they’ve spent years trying to personalise the anonymity of Allianz and outdo the supremacy of Sydney FC, the Tahs and even the Wallabies in the process.
Seeing the Roosters and the Warriors meet at Central Coast Stadium, then, gave last Sunday’s match a special kind of feel. There was an eventful atmosphere, a sense that anything could happen, especially since this was the first clash between Sydney and New Zealand since Roger Tuivasa-Sheck took over the helm at the Warriors. With the second golden point of the season – and very nearly the third after Saturday’s clash between the Knights and the Storm – the game didn’t disappoint, with RTS slotting in a neat try in the 82nd minute to bring it up to 32-28 for the away team. While a field goal in golden point is always exciting, a try is even more impressive, and feels more like a genuine achievement. Like Wayne Bennett, I tend to feel that golden point should be played this way – the win feels more earned, while the extra ten minutes feels more like a genuine extension of the game.
RTS’ try was all the more cathartic in the Warriors had attempted three goals already. On top of that it was his first try for New Zealand, and one of the most impressive in his career so far. Space always seems to contract during golden point, as each team huddles and consolidates to stave off a field goal, but Roger the Dodger nevertheless found 50 metres to stretch his legs before planting it over the try line. It topped off an incredibly dexterous game from the former Roosters fullback, bookending the Warriors’ effort with a fantastic cut-out pass to Manu Vatuvei that set up New Zealand’s first try in the 15th minute.
If RTS was inspired, then Shaun Johnson was superb, racking up two tries in the 32nd and 35th minutes with barely a look back. While Johnson’s fellow Kiwi Shaun Kenny-Dowall may have also scored a double with the Chooks’ first two tries in the second and thirty-ninth minute, the proximity of Johnson’s four-pointers gave them a different kind of power. Sure, his kicking game might not have been quite on par – Jackson Hasting dominated the boot with 4/4 conversions and 2penalty goals – but it was nevertheless a sterling effort, qualified only by yet another fairly uninspired performance from Issac Luke, at least compared to the other two boys in the next Big Three.
On the Tricolors side, Blake Ferguson was fairly unimpressive in defence, and continues to struggle to define a role for himself in the team. While Latrell Mitchell has more potential as a fullback, Fergo has the kind of big brassy personality that often allows him to play his best at the no.1, even that’s not his preferred role. Without the discipline that comes from being at the back, he seems a little bit lost, despite his bulk and speed. While Mitchell also continues to evolve, his work with Sio Siua Taukeiaho was impressive, as he eluded three players to help the second-rower put down a deft try in the 52nd minute. Although it may have been Johnson’s penalty goal in the 74th minute that levelled the score for the last time, it’s also worth reiterating the power of Hastings’ boot – once he gets into his groove, the Chooks are going to have one of the best halves in the competition on their hands.
Still, Sydney are in a pretty bad spot at the moment, especially since they’re up against the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium this weekend. It’s one thing to get to Round 6 without having won any games, but quite another to have to face the team that beat you 42-10 in Round 1 without a single victory to show for yourself. Given the already fractious relationship between the Chooks and the Bunnies, next weekend is set to be one of the best spite matches of 2016. For the Warriors, things are going to be a little more up in the air when they take on the Sea Eagles at Mt Smart. While Sunday afternoon showed us what they can do, they’re still inconsistent – in a single eighty minute match the lead changed three times – although it may be that Manly’s gradual re-ascendance will provide them with the impetus they need to consolidate and build on their achievement at Central Coast Stadium this weekend.