ROUND 2: New Zealand Warriors v. Canberra Raiders (Cbus Super Stadium, 21/3/20)

It’s been a rough two weeks for the Warriors, who didn’t score a single point against Newcastle last week, and now have to face the disruption of remaining in Australia as coronavirus escalates. No surprise, then, that they felt disheveled from the moment they took the field today, as Canberra forced a handling error from Leeson Ah Mau on the very first play. The Raiders  immediately moved rapidly from left to right, as Joseph Tapine secured a hospital pass from Dunamis Lui, and Curtis Scott sent through a grubber kick that got Canberra the first dropout before New Zealand had completed a single tackle. Tapine continued to deliver, taking a big run on the second play and almost breaking through the line, but the Warriors got a bit letoff – and their chance to finish their first set – when Papalii made an obstruction.

Adam Keighran put in his second kick of the afternoon at the end of the set, but this time he got his team a dropout instead of kicking one, forcing George Williams to clean up the football in goal before Wighton elected to go long with the boot. Keighran almost broke through the line on the left on the second tackle, and Wayde Egan shifted the play left again on the fourth, where Eliesa Katoa was cleaned up by the defence, and Chanel Harris-Tevita sent a left foot kick to the right side of the posts. Jarrod Croker caught the ball on the full, but then lost it beneath it a pile of New Zealand jerseys, leaving it open for Lachlan Burr to slam it down for what would have been the first Warriors try of the year if Tohu Harris hadn’t been penalised for tackling Croker in the air.

This was a pretty tough call for New Zealand, but they got another chance almost immediately when Lui put the ball down off a pass from Josh Hodgson. Yet the home team couldn’t focus on this set, partly due to a pair of awkward passes from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on the first and final plays, and so the Raiders got the ball back without too much trouble, albeit losing some momentum of their own when Horsburgh followed RTS with a loose pass early in the tackle count. Blake Green made a run at the line on play two of the next set, and drew Wighton into a high tackle, getting the Warriors a burst of field position, compounded by strong runs from Harris, Ah Mau and Maumalo to get them within the twenty, where Elliot Whitehead was pinged for a second effort.

New Zealand now had their best attacking opportunity of the game, so it was pretty deflating for their fans when Whitehead got his own back by converging with Papalii on Adam Blair, forcing the ex-Bronco to knock on the ball. Curtis Scott got a penalty right away, and the Raiders were rolling once again, searching for the break in the line that would give them the upper hand. Yet another handling error ensued, however, as Wighton now put down the football, in what was quickly becoming the messiest match of Round 2. By this point, both teams were 4/7 for completions, and the game had settled into the doldrums, so one player had to stand up and make a big statement to break the deadlock, or at least rally their team mates around them.

For a moment, it looked like Nick Cotric might be that man, since he made one of the toughest runs a couple of sets later, muscling his way into a couple of defenders early in the tackle count, while trying to milk a penalty. But his energy was absorbed into another lacklustre set for the Raiders, while both teams lost some more momentum as the game paused for Burr to get his head strapped. Bailey Simonsson was the next to lose the Steeden, into a combined tackle from Tohu Harris and David Fusitua, but the Warriors weren’t able to do much out of the scrum, as Canberra clinically cleaned up Egan, Blair and then Fusitua on the first three plays. RTS now made his best run so far, shrugging off Scott and shifting the footy across for Keighran to draw in three defenders and tempt Scott into an offside play.

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Roger’s effort seemed to galvanise Katoa, who was held up over the line on the next tackle, and came even closer to scoring on the fourth play, when Horsburgh made the trysaver of the first half by squeezing himself under the Steeden before it could hit the turf. Towards the end of the set, New Zealand headed right, but Harris lost the ball at the eleventh hour, in what was quickly becoming a comedy of errors that felt even more absurd against the backdrop of an empty stadium. As it turned out, though, this was the tipping-point for Canberra, who consolidated next time they had ball in hand, with Wighton booting through a massive bomb that helped lay the platform for their first try of the night, and a – temporary – respite to the messy play that had plagued both teams.

It came on the back of a deft left sweep that ended with Croker darting back inside, where he offloaded right on the ground for Whitehead to crash over and score – a pretty dour prospect for a New Zealand side who have supposedly made second phase play one of their signatures. Canberra were six ahead when Croker added the extras, bookending the play with the most decisive gesture of leadership so far, before Cotric continued his barnstorming approach with a linebreak on the next set, but followed with an error – a neat summary of the Raiders’ inability to really capitalise on their clear superiority on the park over this opening stanza. Like the Broncos at ANZ Stadium last night, they were far more ahead in skill than they were in points, but the Warriors also couldn’t make the most of their relative good luck.

In fact, New Zealand wouldn’t score a single point this first half, arriving at one hundred and twenty minutes of football in 2020 without getting on the board. They got a good chance just before the siren, when Iosia Soliola was put on report for a high tackle, and then another boost when Tapine was penalised for lying in the ruck on the very first play. With forty seconds on the clock, the Warriors had a fresh set of six, but they didn’t even get to twenty, as yet another handling error – this time a lost ball from King Vuniyayawa – cost them their last chance of the first stanza. Things weren’t any better when they returned to the field, as Keighran conceded the opening penalty, and Hodgson followed with a grubber off the side of his boot that slid through RTS’ legs for Solioa to make up for his report with his first try of 2020.

For a moment, it looked like this might be a palette cleanser for the Raiders, but they returned to the awkward rhythm of the first half when Emre Guler lost the footy three tackles into the restart, as the escalating heat made the Steeden slipperier with each play. Katoa responded with a massive run on the second tackle, but Blair then put the ball down on the next play, setting up the Raiders to rapidly recoup the focus of their previous try. Cometh the hour cometh the man, and Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad scooped up the ball after it left Blair’s hands, storming his way up the park, getting in field to elude RTS, and then shifting the footy across to Scott, who executed a quick play-the-ball for the Raiders to head left, where they got a four-on-one, allowing Simonsson to crash over for a bit of a joy following his lost ball in the first forty.

This was the most decisive play of the afternoon – just what the game needed to get into first gear – and a big challenge for the Warriors, who were sixteen in the red after Croker missed his first conversion, sending the Steeden across the front of the posts from the left sideline. Lui made a massive run on the restart, launching his whole body through the line like a superhero trying to get off the ground, and Guler held the ball tight on the third, but Keighran still managed to clean up Williams’ final kick, despite his team mates in the chase looking pretty exhausted by this stage in the game. Green tried to recover some ground with a 40/20 attempt on the next set, but the bounce didn’t work out, and CNK recovered the footy pretty easily, as the game slowly but surely started to descend back into the slog of the opening half.

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After a few more sets, it was starting to feel that the next team to score would simply be the next team to capitalise upon an error – and the next error came from Whitehead, who clamoured for a captain’s challenge that would probably have been overturned. Still, the Warriors didn’t get much of a chance to escalate, since Tapine and Katoa were both taken off after colliding in a nasty head clash early in the tackle count, as Vuniyayawa and Horsburgh subbed on after the longest pause in the game so far. Only on the last play did New Zealand build some rhythm on the right edge, where they trapped Simonsson in field, and would almost certainly have scored if Fusitua’s catch-and-pass hadn’t sailed past Adam Pompey and over the sideline – an uncharacteristic fumble from one of the Warriors’ deftest ball handlers.

Double knock-ons were becoming so common that some of the biggest moments of this lacklustre game now turned on who made the error first, with Blair coming out worst from a clash with Horsburgh a moment later, getting Canberra the scrum feed halfway up the park. Williams searched for his third linebreak of the year, following his two superb efforts against Gold Coast last week, with a big run up the right side of the field, and then a sent a wild pass on the last, which Hodgson righted with a deft grubber that RTS gathered right on the line, showcasing his most courageous take of the night as Whitehead stormed in to slam him into touch. Still, the Raiders had the dropout, as Papalii took big hits on both the first and second tackles, as Canberra seemed set to consolidate one more time.

Sure enough Williams popped out a harbor bridge pass to Cotric on the penultimate play, but it was called back as forward, as the players packed yet another scrum, in what was starting to feel more like a Super Rugby fixture than a regular game of NRL. If the Warriors hadn’t scored in these last ten minutes, it would have been the first game in a hundred years – since Annandale, in 1920 – when a team had remained scoreless for the first two rounds of rugby league in Australia, so New Zealand must have breathed a sigh of relief when they put down points next time they had ball in hand, off a pair of errors from Horsburgh (obstruction) and Hodgson (strip).

Canberra were now 10-4 on the penalty count, and used up their captain’s challenge to question the call on Horsburgh, but to no avail. Green bobbled the footy on the third play when Whitehead slammed in for some big contact, but he managed to regain it, helping New Zealand to shift to the left, where Kodi Nikorima chased down the kick, but was run off his line by Williams in goal. In regular speed it looked like a penalty try and the replay confirmed it, narrowing the deficit to ten points, with six minutes left on the clock, when Harris-Tevita booted through the Warriors’ first and only conversion of the night. Yet a forward pass from Keighran put the pin in New Zealand’s brief burst of pointscoring, resulting in an unsuccessful captain’s challenge for the home team, even though their case seemed a bit better than Canberra’s.

This was enough, then, for Canberra to win the game, making them two from two after their first two games of football in 2020 – a win over Gold Coast and a win at Gold Coast’s home ground. That said, they’ve been playing teams that they should have beaten, and will probably continue to cruise through when they meet the Dragons for the first game of Round 3, before they get their first really doubtful match of the season against the Sea Eagles the week after. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a courageous effort from a Warriors outfit who have faced some of the most extraordinary challenges of any NRL team in recent years over the last two weeks. However they look in Round 3, when they’re slated to play Manly at Brookvale, they can feel proud of the brave face they showed at Cbus this afternoon.

About Billy Stevenson (509 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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