ROUND 3: New Zealand Warriors v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Central Coast Stadium, 30/5/20)
After the most disrupted pandemic period of any NRL team, the Warriors made history at Central Coast Stadium on Saturday afternoon with a near perfect-game against the Dragons. New Zealand completed a record-breaking 45 out of 47 sets, in a match that had all the rigour and precision of the most iconic Origin performances. Strangely, they gave away the first penalty, as Ken Maumalo started with a late tackle on Zac Lomax under the high ball, but they accelerated immediately after, getting the first six again call, and then the first try, when Dufty fumbled a deft grubber from Corey Norman. Seizing the chance for his first NRL try, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown scooped it up and literally stepped over Dufty to slam down the first four points, setting up Nikorima for his easiest of three conversions over the course of the game. In fact, the initial call was no try, leading to a brief examination of whether Eliesa Katoa was offside, but the replay just reiterated how good the putdown had been – as fast and efficient as all of New Zealand’s attack so far.
The Warriors put in a compressed and intensified set for the restart, as Nikorima kicked on the fourth, and Dufty nearly coughed up the footy for a second time, only just reaching it as the bounce careened away from him at a crazy angle. Mikaele Ravalawa lost the ball immediately after, and New Zealand got another chance to continue their perfect completion rate, ending this time with a contest in the air, where Maumalo conceded their first handling error only a few sets after conceding their first penalty. St. George now got their first good attacking opportunity, and their first six again call, as Hunt broke through the line on the left edge, but they missed two good chances in the left corner at the end of the set – first, when Paul Vaughan was held up before he could get a catch-and-pass to the wing, and then when Tyson Frizell was bundled up on the final tackle. New Zealand’s defence was clearly as efficient as their attack, and would end up keeping the Dragons to zero by the end of the match, although St. George’s aborted attacking options played a role too, as they did during this early sequence.Embed from Getty Images
The Warriors now seemed to accelerate with each new set, and each set restart – and they got their next one only a couple of tackles in, next time they had ball in hand. Ben Hunt and Cameron McInnes only just stopped Katoa on the third tackle, before Hunt made the best St. George defence so far to clean up Peta Hiku on the left edge, in a nice little bit of revenge for Frizell’s wrapup in the left corner a minute before. This was the first flat ending for New Zealand, and the Dragons got some more breathing-space when Hunt found touch for the first scrum of the afternoon – a pause that was even more palpable given the accelerated pace of this game. Patrick Herbert took a barnstorming run on the first tackle, and Adam Blair asked some big questions on the line, but Dufty still cleaned up the last kick right on the chalk, getting to ground immediately to avoid a dropout. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck now had to contend with the setting sun under the high ball, but he did as well as ever, starting another rapid attack from New Zealand that closed out with a long-range kick from Blake Green.
St. George got their best attacking opportunity in a while when Norman followed Hunt by breaking through the line on the left, but they couldn’t do much when they shifted the play to the right, where Blake Lawrie was cleaned up before they could arrive at their final kick. Things got worse for the Saints a minute later, when Hunt’s kick ricocheted off the defence, sitting up cleanly for Maumalo to collect it. Josh Kerr then conceded an offside penalty, gifting the Warriors the extra field position they needed for their second try. Katoa had been raring for the grass all night, and he got them here, finishing up a compressed left play that saw Green and Nikorima run into the line before Katoa completed the sweep by stomping over Hunt to put down the next four points. Two Warriors had now stepped over the St. George halfback to score points, and once again Nikorima added the extras, shooting New Zealand twelve ahead with only one error and penalty to their name, before Karl Lawton replaced Peta Hiku to inject a bit of fresh energy.Embed from Getty Images
Hunt and Nikorima now went bomb for bomb, and the Warriors had two more glitches – a crowding penalty from Agnatius Paasi, and a missed field goal from Green on the stroke of half time – but the next fifteen minutes were largely a showcase for New Zealand completion, sending them into the sheds with every set finished. They had seven tackles for their last set, where they showcased some of their best second-phase play all afternoon, as RTS almost broke through the line on the second, before Green’s one-point effort sailed too low to have a chance of clearing the crossbars. The Warriors came back from the break just as fast, and should have ended their first set with a try, or at least a repeat set, only for Green to mistime the kick, allowing Dufty to clean it up without too much trouble. St. George got some more good luck when Paasi conceded the first penalty of the second half with undue pressure on the kicker, but it came to nothing when Kerr coughed up the footy beneath a tackle from Katoa and Lawton only two tackles later. Just as quickly as the Dragons had glimpsed a comeback, the Warriors had closed ranks once again.
In fact, St. George hadn’t won after being held scoreless at half time since Round 19 2013, against the Rabbitohs, so they had to make an immediate impact here if they were going to have any shot at the competition points. Yet Katoa made a massive run on the fourth two tackles later, before New Zealand had their turn to take advantage of the new tackle-in-the-air penalty, as Norman put his hand around RTS’ neck just after the Warriors no. 1 had lost the footy anyway. The toughest call of the night for Saints set up Nikorima to extend the lead to 14-0 with the sole penalty kick of the night. He sent it through the uprights with no trouble, as Hunt appeared to be limping on his right leg after a big kick on the previous play, with what turned out to be an agitated boil that was bandaged a couple of minutes later. Lawrie and Ravalawa now made a good effort to drive back Katoa on the first tackle, trying in vain to stop the floodwaters of Warriors possession, but once again the hosts got to the end of their set, making it 27/27 as they glimpsed one of their most seamless periods of attack in team history.Embed from Getty Images
New Zealand weren’t just accelerating, but growing more relaxed in their acceleration, epitomised by a languorous long ball that RTS sent out to Maumalo after collecting the St. George kick at the fifty minute mark. The Dragons hadn’t made a single tackle in the New Zealand twenty during this second half, falling even further behind when Nikorima ran the ball for the first time, making his way from the Warriors’ thirty to the Dragons’ thirty, where he offloaded to Green. The New Zealand five-eighth came to ground, but the home team still got a six again call, and Nikorima received the footy out of dummy half a second later, swaying back and forth to get past Lawrie and muscle through an attempted leg tackle from Norman, to slam down the Warriors’ third and final try. Surprisingly, he didn’t make the conversion, but he’d still scored off his first run of the footy, while New Zealand remained three converted tries ahead without failing a single set.
The Warriors came close to their next try when Dufty missed the high ball, setting up Paasi to accelerate into the right corner, before RTS was held up a metre in front of the posts. Roger the Dodger then took a second run to get half a metre over the line, where he was held up by McInnes and Dufty, all with five tackles remaining thanks to a six again call midway through the previous sequence. Wayde Egan followed in RTS’ footsteps, and was also pushed back over the chalk by another combined effort from Dufty and McInnes, before Nikorima’s kick bounced off the post, and Egan made a second, less organized kick on the right edge, sending the Steeden ricocheting off Norman for the Dragons’ biggest letoff so far. This should have been a point scoring sequence for New Zealand, so you’d think this ending would give the Dragons a bit of a surge, but the Warriors continued more or less undaunted, aside from a slightly diminished last tackle game from Green during this second stanza.Embed from Getty Images
They got yet another six again call, this time on the first tackle, as the last quarter started, with Harris making fifteen metres on the fourth play, and Green executing one of his better bombs of the game, albeit taken quite cleanly by Jordan Pereira. Yet it didn’t matter that the Warriors didn’t score again, since the rest of the game was a masterpiece of possession, as they made it 40/40 and then 43/43, raising the question of whether they would see out this game without a single set going begging. Finally, with five minutes on the clock, and on their 45th set, they made their first mistake, as Murchie lost the footy in the middle of the field. No surprise that they went for a Captain’s Challenge, but it was pretty clear from the Bunker that this had been a loose carry, rather than a strip from Frizell and Aitken, as the Warriors were hoping. They had one more error from Egan, two minutes before the siren, but they still finished 45/47, while the first 75 minutes had been some of the most sustained football in New Zealand rugby league history.
They also managed to hold the Dragons to zero, right down to the Red V’s last major tryscoring option. In the dying minutes of the match, Hunt set up Dufty for the best harbour bridge pass of the game out to the wing, where Ravalawa was unmarked. Everything seemed set for a consolation try, until Maumalo stormed in at high speed and forced Ravalawa to cough up the footy – a splendid conclusion to such a dominant game from New Zealand. One of the attractions of the renewed NRL has been the faster pace – and this was the fastest game so far, since the Warriors almost whittled it right back to the regulation eighty minutes, outpacing their pandemic problems with each fresh set of six. It’ll be fascinating to see whether they can maintain this completion rate when they take on the Panthers and Cowboys over the next few weeks, while the Dragons will be raring to put down points when they play the Bulldogs next Monday, for the final match of Round 4.
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