New Zealand have come away with a dramatic win over the Roosters at Mount Smart Stadium after a last minute error gifted them an opportunity for penalty goal. From the outset, it felt like a classic Warriors home fixture, from the driving rain that set in towards the end of the first stanza to yet another varied performance from Shaun Johnson, who remains one of the most mercurial halfbacks in the modern game.
In fact, you could tell the whole story of the game through Johnson, who played a part in all four of the tries – two from the Warriors, two from the Roosters – that led to a 12-12 deadlock in the final fifteen minutes. Five minutes into the match, Johnson set up Issac Luke for the deft pass that allowed James Gavet to crash over and build some early momentum for the home team.
Johnson’s best moment came half an hour later, however, when he bookended David Fusitua’s seventh four-pointer for the season. Coming up with a deft intercept, Johnson was tackled by Daniel Tupou who was sent off for ten minutes after the tackle devolved into a professional foul. The Warriors decided to tap instead of taking the two, and four tackles in Johnson managed a quick step and pass to put Fusitua over the line.
It was a difficult pass to catch, so full credit goes to Fusitua as well, but the execution of the entire set had Johnson’s stamp on it, especially after he converted seamlessly a couple of seconds later. Last week against the Storm, Johnson was visibly irritated at having to take the two towards the end of the first stanza, so the Warriors’ effort to take a chance at a try also felt inflected through their halfback’s presence on the field as well.
Unfortunately, however, both of the Roosters’ tries came off the back of Shaun Kenny-Dowall intercepting Johnson’s passes as well. In the first case, SKD took control of a messy pass to run half the field, with the play length of moving through Mitchell Pearce and Aiden Guerra before Joseph Manu showed some incredible footwork to dodge three Warriors defenders and put the Steeden over the line from twenty metres out.
Seven minutes into the second time, SKD once again intercepted Johnson, running the full length of the field this time to put down his own four-pointer, garnering a burst of Roosters momentum that would last right up until the final penalty goal for the Warriors. It was a bitter pill for New Zealand to swallow, given that Kieran Foran had just caught a spiralling Johnson bomb to get debutant Charnze Nicoll-Kolkstad across the line, in what would have been a fairytale opening for the new winger, had the bunker not deemed that a tackle had been completed before the four points were put down.
From then on, Sydney City had all the momentum, although there were a few pivotal moments that could have suggested victory for either side. Fifteen minutes from the final siren, Johnson chose the run to ball on last tackle in what could have been a huge game-changer if he’d managed to get it across (and he almost did). Similarly, three successive sets from the Chooks after errors from Johnson and SKD culminated with Michael Gordon taking the two, in what felt like a bit of a Pyrrhic victory for Sydney.
There can be no doubt, however, that the final turning-point came after the Roosters failed to score from several sets on the Warriors line ten minutes out from the line. Pearce kicked the Steeden into touch and gifted New Zealand with seven tackles, only for Bodene Thompson to cough it up two tackles in and provide Sydney City with the surge they needed to finish off. Finally, Pearce managed his third field goal attempt six minutes out from the end, and it seemed like a done deal.
In the end, though, it wasn’t to be. There was no replay of the Roosters penalty during the broadcast I saw, so it’s probably too early to say whether it was a fair finish or not. Still, it didn’t feel like a fair finish. Given the momentum and energy of the Chooks, I felt a bit cheated to see the Warriors come home with the victory, especially since it also provided a kind of false closure on Johnson’s spotty performance throughout the game. At the very least, you’d have to say that the Roosters lost, rather than that the Warriors won, especially because Johnson had a pretty easy set-up for his final two-pointer.
It’s going to be an even more frustrating loss for the Roosters in that they now have to wait a full two weeks to aim for some kind of recompense when they take on the Eels at Allianz Stadium. Still, it was a great buildup for tonight’s announcement of the Kiwi side in the representative clash next weekend – and the Mt. Smart commentators seemed to know it – with New Zealanders dominating the try scoring on both sides. Think of it as a prelude to representative round, then, since it’s clear that no matter who David Kidwell chooses, the Kangaroos are going to have a hard job on their hands.