THE New Zealand Warriors found their spark again, easily shutting out an underwhelming Wests Tigers unit in atrocious conditions.
Both teams entered the game on a three-match losing streak and a win was important to stay in the mix for the top eight.
In the end though, the Tigers were flatter than week-old soft drink, and the Warriors did just enough to get the two points on a day when entertaining football was hard to come by.
When you think ‘wet-weather football’ you think completions, limiting your mistakes and good kicking games. So it may surprise some to hear that the Tigers had an almost flawless first half – they completed 18 of their 21 sets, including their first six in a row.
But without captain Robbie Farah, who is on Origin duty with NSW, they never looked like piercing the newly resilient Warriors defence.
Stand-in skipper Benji Marshall ran sideways, schemed, created space and put players into gaps – but it wasn’t effective and his kicking game lacked punch.
Warriors debutant Kevin Locke opened the scoring in the 30th minute with a nice, angled run off his wing after taking a sweet ball from Jerome Ropati.
Locke, who has starred for the Warriors Toyota Cup team for the past two seasons, looks like a young Billy Slater – his raw speed, running style and ability to create explosive opportunities were not dulled even by the driving rain.
The Game Swung When… Wade McKinnon crossed soon after half-time. The Tigers had come close but were not able to seal points many times throughout the first half, but when the Warriors’ custodian picked up his third try of the season, a dipping of heads was noticeable among the Tigers’ camp.
It was a great wet-weather try, with McKinnon running onto a short ball from Russell Packer 10 metres from the tryline as he shrugged off efforts from Tim Moltzen and Rocky Trimarchi.
McKinnon’s contribution made sure the Warriors were awake for the second half and went a long way to securing the home side just their second win from their past nine matches.
Who Was Hot… McKinnon was sublime at fullback, offering his best game of the season. The hot-and-cold no.1 was immaculate under the high ball – and he was tested regularly by Marshall in trying conditions – and his kick returns were back to the high levels we saw from the former Eel during much of the 2007 season.
Perhaps most importantly, he pulled off a string of wonderful try-saving tackles – most notably when he carried a tryline-bound Rhys Hanbury into touch late in the fixture.
Kevin Locke, on debut, scored two tries, came up with two line breaks, ran for 105 metres and outpointed his more experienced rivals.
Micheal Luck put in another tireless effort, making 57 tackles, while Simon Mannering (138 metres) was strong on the edges.
Gareth Ellis was the Tigers’ best. The popular Englishman made 36 tackles, ran for 150 metres off 18 runs and made one great line break where he found himself in open space… without a single team-mate in support.
Who Was Not… In the absence of Farah, coach Tim Sheens would have asked for more from his playmakers – but Marshall and Tim Moltzen were conspicuously quiet. Everything Marshall tried turned out badly, and Moltzen’s game was summed up best when he bombed a try by firing a rocket pass to Taniela Tuiaki’s shoulder with the tryline in sight.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… A crowd of more than 15,000 turning out for the match! It might seem trivial, but two out-of-form sides coming together on a day when the heavens opened, and the day after the Super 14 Grand Final – it was a beautiful sight for New Zealand rugby league. As for the play on the field, the conditions didn’t encourage adlib football, so the result was a game that was, frankly, quite believable!
Bad Boys… Daine Laurie applied what appeared to be a grapple tackle on centre Jerome Ropati; however, the incident was given a green light by the match review committee.
Injuries…. Peni Tagive left the field in the 52nd minute, further reducing the Tigers’ already depleted centre stocks. The athletically gifted Fijian was forced from the field with a suspected broken collarbone and faces a lengthy stint on the sidelines.
Refs Watch… For the most part the whistleblowers did well to keep the rain-soaked match under control.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Wade McKinnon (Warriors): Was superb in the wet – the fullback ran for 151 metres, scored a crucial try, made 13 tackle breaks and defused anything sent his way by Benji Marshall; 2 points – Kevin Locke (Warriors): A wonderful debut for the talented Kiwi, Locke was the first and last try-scorer in a low-scoring affair; 1 point – Micheal Luck (Warriors): Captaining in the absence of Steve Price, Luck was a rock in defence, producing a whopping 57 tackles.
NZ Warriors 14 (K Locke 2, W McKinnon tries; Locke 1 goal) def Wests Tigers 0 at Mt Smart Stadium. Crowd: 15,835.