Over the last few weeks, the first clash between the Warriors and the Dragons has become one of the most anticipated games of the first part of the 2018 NRL season. If New Zealand hadn’t gone down to Brisbane last week, both of these teams would have been meeting each other undefeated. With only one loss between them, though, the stakes were still high when they clashed at Mt. Smart Stadium, for what promised to be one of the most evenly matched games of Round 7, and a litmus test for how both teams might look as we move beyond the first part of the season.
While both outfits were outstanding, this really felt like a home game for the Warriors in the opening stanza, since they defended better than they have at any point this season, as well as managing to put down two tries of their own to hold the Dragons to 10-0. The first points came early, after Nene Macdonald got a touch to the ball, resulting in six again for New Zealand, at the end of which Mason Lino got around Gareth Widdop, beat Tim Lafai, crashed through Matt Dufty, and the slammed over beneath Macdonald from fifteen minutes out for the night’s first try.
If there had been a chink in the Warriors’ armour heading into the match, it had been the late news that Shaun Johnson wouldn’t be playing in the halves – an announcement that, combined with New Zealand’s recent loss, had seemed to skew the odds slightly in favour of St. George-Illawarra. Seeing Lino crash over so early, and in only his second game of the 2018 NRL season following his Round 4 stint against the Roosters, was therefore a critical rallying point for the Warriors, and an indication that they could retain their cohesion in the absence of their star halfback.
Over the next thirty minutes, New Zealand’s trysaving was every bit as spectacular as their tryscoring, which isn’t to say that the Dragons didn’t put in a stellar performance, but that the Warriors were uncannily attuned to the best ways to shut them down. David Fusitua, in particular, was stunning under the high ball, especially in an early take when he managed to clean up the Steeden and burst right back into the field of play at the end of an especially dangerous and propulsive Dragons set.
That trysaving culminated with a sustained sequence about half an hour in, when the Red V received set after set on the Warriors’ line. It started with a tackle from Ken Maumalo that set the ball loose, and that actually involved a knock-on, before Euan Aitken scooped it up and then knocked it on himself in turn. From there, New Zealand bled a string of penalties – the least disciplined part of their game – with the penalty count eventually reaching 8-1 after Tohu Harris was taken off for an HIA.
Everything was converging on a St. George try, and yet a massive second effort from Issac Luke prevented the predictable four-pointer from Widdop in the corner, resulting in a changeover and an enormous burst of confidence from New Zealand after a sustained period of possession that felt every bit as significant as a try, or even a couple of tries. As it turned out, though, that confidence produced a try almost immediately, after Blake Green secured his eighth goal line dropout of the 2018 season, sending through a neat grubber that Jason Nightingale had to clean up.
If Lino’s try had been galvanising to watch, then it was even more rousing to see Anthony Gelling put down his first NRL try – at twenty-seven years of age – off the restart, thanks, once again, to Green, who sent across a short ball at just the right moment. Bursting through Hunt and then dancing around a couple of defenders, Gelling’s four-pointer combined the best of short and long range efforts much as Lino’s had before him, and with Lino adding the extras this time around the score was set at 10-0, in the worst the Dragons have fared in a first half of footy this year.
Nevertheless, the Warriors continued to bleed penalties, resulting in Green being binned a minute out from the end, leaving St. George with the tantalising prospect of a full set against a twelve-man line exhausted from thirty-nine minutes of plosive football. While they didn’t get across this time, Green’s integral part in the previous try spoke to just how big this punishment was for New Zealand, and sure enough Hunt crossed over thirty seconds before Green returned in the second stanza, with Widdop’s ever-reliable boot adding the extras to ratchet up the scoreline to 10-6.
The most dramatic moment of the night came shortly after, following an amazing catch from Rogert Tuivasa-Sheck under the high ball, that itself came after an amazing clean up from Maumalo. While Fusitua had contained a couple of dangerous Dragons bombs in the first half, the light rain that had set in during the second forty had made ball handling even trickier, so it was amazing to see how efficiently the Warriors adapted themselves to the St. George high balls in response.
Yet that catch from RTS just made it all the more dispiriting, initially, for the home crowd, when Lafai intercepted a pass from Maumalo a moment later, planting the footy beside the posts before the Warriors knew what had hit them. In a brilliant call, however, the referees suggested – correctly, as the Bunker confirmed – that RTS had actually not got to the Steeden first, and that James Graham had knocked it into the New Zealand fullback’s chest before Lafai managed to carry it across the chalk.
It was the kind of sudden turnaround that can make or break a match, and sure enough the Warriors were renewed and re-energised by such a sudden letoff. Issac Luke, in particular, took this opportunity to cement an already outstanding game into his best performances since he was Rabbitohs hooker, securing a superb 40/20 on the next New Zealand set, and then slamming straight through Dufty right on the Dragons’ defensive line to bring home the third try of the evening for the Warriors.
The Dragons weren’t done, though, as Tariq Sims mirrored Luke’s short-range effort with an twist-and-spin seven minutes out from the end to bring it to a four-point game. Still, with Kurt Mann putting the ball down shortly after, the Warriors got another chance, and made the most of it, thanks to a deft chip from Lino and a spectacular catch and knock-back from RTS, in his most spectacular effort at fullback all night, after which the footy made its way through a succession of New Zealand hands before Isaiah Papali’i crashed over the line with Mann handing onto his back.
With the exception of Luke, then, every New Zealand try had been scored by a younger or newer player – a rousing tribute to their ability to regroup and find some cohesion in Johnson’s absence, and possibly their very best game of the 2018 season. Meanwhile, the Dragons have now clocked up their first loss, and will be desperate to restore their winning streak when they take on the Roosters next week.