ROUND 1: New Zealand Warriors v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Mt. Smart Stadium, 16/3/19)
It was a new look Bulldogs outfit that turned up at Mt. Smart Stadium on Saturday afternoon, with the absence of both Morris brothers and David Klemmer leaving some significant chinks in the Canterbury-Bankstown armour, despite the arrival of Dylan Napa in their forward pack. On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors were facing their first game without Shaun Johnson in the halves, with Blake Green now having to carry the team’s strategy and support young gun Adam Keighran in his first NRL game.
They needn’t have worried, however, since Green demonstrated that he was more than capable of stepping up, orchestrating the first two tries for New Zealand with pinpoint kicks to the left and right edges of their attack. For the first part of the match, however, the Dogs seemed pretty resilient, spurred on by an unforced error in the play-the-ball from Solomone Kata, and a big tackle in the air from Christian Crichton on David Fusitua, that was dangerous, but went unpunished.
About five minutes in, the visitors got a good opportunity on their left edge, only for Kerrod Holland to knock on the football following a split-second catch-and-pass from Will Hopoate. A confident take under the high ball consolidated their momentum, but the Warriors responded with one of their strongest sets of the game so far, with a sequence of second phase play allowing them to accelerate rapidly up their right edge. On the next tackle, an oblique, skittering grubber from Green forced Lachlan Lewis to pop the ball into touch, gaining New Zealand a dropout.
They made the most of it too, with Bunty Afoa setting the scene with the first of many barnstorming runs on the first tackle that he would make throughout the afternoon. Aiden Tolman didn’t quite manage to contain him, as the Warriors made some of their most accelerated advances in field position so far over the next two tackles. On the third, Green glimpsed some space on the left wing, and chipped the ball over to Ken Maumalo, who caught and grounded it so quickly that in real time it looked as if there had to be a knock-on, despite an onfield ruling of try.
In slow motion, however, you could see how elegantly Maumalo had reached out his massive wingspan to greet the footy with the tips of his fingers. He never managed to gather it fully in either hand, but instead maintained enough momentum and speed to collect and ground it in the same sweeping motion. It was the closest a try can come to a catch-and-pass – a catch-and-ground – and more than enough to sustain the Warriors over the next few sets, even if Adam Keighran missed his first conversion attempt in the NRL.
In particular, Green’s vision, boldness and leadership in kicking on the third tackle seemed to breathe new life into New Zealand. Two sets later, Nathaniel Roache almost broke through the line, and seemed set to effect a linebreak with his subsequent offload, only for the ball to bounce off the boots of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and into the hands of Will Hopoate. The best Bulldogs set so far now ensued, as Hoppa got the ball again a tackle later and poked his nose through the line, only for Kata to momentarily clean up any action for Canterbury on their left edge.
Unphased, the visitors shifted the ball right, where Kieran Foran kicked into the corner, and Marcelo Montoya almost slammed down their first try, only for RTS to bounce it to earth, NBA-style, before the big winger could arrive at it. Yet as the Dogs got in place to receive the dropout, and the siren came and went, the referees belatedly revealed that Montoya had in fact got a hand to the footy first, and that the Warriors would now receive possession and start their next set of six.
This was a massive shift in momentum, since the Bulldogs had just started to peak, and would likely have scored on the next set. No surprise, then, that Green booted through another inspired kick a few tackles later, this time a long-range effort to the right edge of the field. What came next was pure rugby league poetry, as Maumalo leapt up in the air to tap the ball back to Kata, who collected it on the full, gathered it under his arm, and then curved his whole body around to score with Lachlan Lewis on his back.
This time, Keighran added the extras, putting the Warrors ten points ahead with seventeen minutes until the halftime siren. Seven minutes later, Keighran scored on debut, following a penalty on Danny Fualalo for a hand in the ruck. Receiving the ball from Green, the young five-eighth pivoted off his left foot to elude Montoya, pivoted off his right foot to avoid Foran, and then dummied to dishevel the last stage of the Canterbury defence, before slamming over the line for a triumphant four points.
For a moment, it had looked as if Keighran might actually pass, or even kick to the corner, but – like Green’s earlier kick on the third tackle – he backed himself, and scored for his debut. The Warriors couldn’t have compensated better for Johnson’s absence if they’d scriped the match, while the Dogs were yet to score a point during the 2019 NRL season.
Two minutes out from the siren, New Zealand put the icing on the cake with one of their signatures – a superb passage of second phase football that started with a quick play-the-ball from RTS. On the right edge of their attack, Kata showcased such dexterous footwork to get around Josh Jackson that he was able to split the difference between a pass and offload, sending the footy across to Fusitua, who put in a more conventional, if still brilliant, second phase effort, during a low tackle from Hopoate.
Collecting the footy from his winger, Roache sailed over the line, setting up Keighran for his second conversion of the night, and bringing the Warriors to 22-0 as they headed into the sheds. If the home halves were syncing better than anyone could have expected, the visiting halves were struggling to congeal, with Lachlan Lewis’ trademark pause-and-kick upsetting the timing of his last-tackle options rather than cohering them as it typically does.
Five minutes into the second stanza, Lewis sent the ball downfield off his left boot on the last tackle, and when it skidded into touch the Warriors got a seven tackle set and their best attacking option since returning from the break. They took full advantage of it, marching the ball eighty metres with ease, until Green was in position to look left and pass right to RTS, who sliced pass Lewis and dummied right before crashing over the line to bring the score to 28-0 once Keighran had booted through another two points.
It was a bad defensive misread from Lewis, but the Dogs looked exhausted generally, barely able to keep track with a New Zealand outfit that seemed determined to play even better without their former star halfback. Fifteen minutes in, however, Hopoate had another near-linebreak, and with Jazz Tevaga leaking a penalty for a slow peel, Canterbury put down their best set of the afternoon, as well as their best line speed on the fourth tackle, as the ball moved through Tolman, Lewis, Jackson and Hoppa to send Crichton across on the left edge.
Credit has to go to Lewis, in particular, whose early ball to Jackson set up much of the rhythm of what followed. The Dogs were finally rolling, and followed up with another outstanding set, starting with Tolman taking the first hit-up, and Holland asking all kinds of questions around the New Zealand ruck. However, as with the belated call on Montoya’s knock-on during the first half, bad luck now took the momentum away from the Dogs, at the tail end of a gnarly last-tackle kick from the Warriors that ricocheted awkwardly off the side of Keighran’s boot.
At the other end of the park Hoppa was understandably unwilling to make a play for it, and kept a relatively wide berth, hoping it would scuttle harmlessly over the sideline. The Steeden had other intentions, though, bouncing off his knee, and giving the Warriors the chance to consolidate once again. Three tackles in, it took half the Canterbury pack to prevent Peta Hiku crashing over on the left edge, before New Zealand shifted the footy back to the left, where Green and RTS linked up again.
This time the New Zealand fullback was the try assister, receiving the football from Green, and responding with a deft left foot step that allowed him to dance around Holland and then send it over to Kata a millisecond before Jackson stormed in for a low tackle. Despite Crichton’s best efforts, Kata notched up a double, bringing the Warriors to an unassailable twenty-eight point lead as the last quarter of the match started to wind down.
Eleven minutes out, Hiku made good on that earlier movement on the left edge, once again thanks to RTS, along with an earlier hit-up from Kata on Adam Elliott that laid the foundation for the surge down towards the Warriors’ left corner. Dummying for the briefest of moments, the New Zealand no. 3 dodged past Reimis Smith and brushed off Corey Harawira-Naera for his fifth consecutive try against the Bulldogs, bringing the home team to 40-6 once Keighran booted through yet another conversion.
By this stage, it felt as if the Warriors were simply cleaning up loose ends, revisiting the plays that hadn’t worked out earlier in the match, and then correcting them. Neither team scored again, as New Zealand came away with a barnstorming start to their 2019 season, which they’ll be keen to repeat when they take on the Tigers at Campbelltown next week. Meanwhile, this was a pretty sobering opener for the Dogs, who’ll be looking for a big win margin over the Eels at ANZ on Sunday afternoon to regain some early season pride.
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