Warriors primed to deliver finals knock-out
There is more than just a finals spot at stake tonight, according to Warriors coach Ivan Cleary.<br><br>It was 15 years ago now that the NRL’s first non-Australian club ran onto the Mt Smart Stadium turf for the very first time against the might of the Brisbane Broncos and the rivalry hasn’t dimmed since.<br><br>Yet as fortune would have it, the two sides face off again tonight in a clash that could not only propel the Warriors into September but also signal the end of an era for a Brisbane side that hasn’t missed the finals since way back in 1991 (18 consecutive seasons).<br><br>The Warriors have always looked up to the Broncos as the benchmark club and still do to this day, so when the history books look back in time Cleary believes this clash may well be seen as a defining moment.<br> <br>“The stakes are pretty high,” he told NRL.com. “Brisbane-Warriors games – because they were the first team we ever played – have typically held a bit of a special place and a lot of those games have been big affairs over the years.<br><br>“When we first started the Broncos really were the benchmark team and they’ve never really lost that. They’ve played in the finals every year for however many years it is now. <br><br>“They’re like big brother – that’s the benchmark and that’s what everyone looks up to. <br><br>“And when you talk about those big games, now it comes down to tonight when we’re both fighting for the same thing.”<br><br>It seemed almost incomprehensible at the start of the season that these two clubs could find themselves going head to head in such a do-or-die clash – a win for the Warriors guaranteeing them a finals berth and a loss for Brisbane leaving them on the precipice of an early exit.<br><br>This time last year the Kiwi club was merely a shadow of its current self as injury and an emotionally draining year (namely due to the tragic disappearance of Sonny Fai) saw them limp into the off-season with just two wins from their final 10 matches.<br><br>Few gave them any chance of turning it around so quickly.<br><br>But Cleary insists his side isn’t content to rest comfortably on what they have already achieved in 2010.<br><br>“I don’t really see anything like that at the moment,” he said. “We had to build that confidence back this year and I think we’ve done that. I’m sure the players have some fire in the belly. <br><br>“They’ve worked hard enough and they understand that this competition is very, very open.<br><br>“There is certainly a real good vibe amongst the boys to go as far as we can. <br><br>“At training at the moment it doesn’t feel like the end of the season. <br><br>“There is a spring in their step and if anything they are feeding off that sense of excitement with the big games coming up.”<br><br>Ironically, the Warriors head into tonight’s clash as firm favourites to beat a Brisbane outfit missing captain Darren Lockyer.<br><br>But Cleary said it was the self-belief that had permeated his players’ minds that had formed the cornerstone of their performances this season. <br><br>“There is definitely more confidence there and that comes from having a lot of our star players on the field,” he said. <br><br>“Early in the year – and at one point in Round 16 – we worked out that we’d had between four and six first-stringers out every game. <br><br>“But the bonus we’ve got from that is a lot of guys – especially younger guys – have really matured and become a lot more consistent. <br><br>“Now you’re seeing a real team performance every week where every player is important. We’re not relying so much on just a few key guys each week. <br><br>“That’s been a positive. And they’re all highly motivated to keep going this year. <br><br>“I guess everyone wants to get to the end of the season and have opportunities. The picture is pretty clear for us now, being so close and having it all so tight. <br><br>“The equation is much clearer for everyone – we just have to win.”<br><b><br>Late NRL news:</b><br><br>• Penrith are sweating on the fitness of strike centre Michael Jennings who is struggling with a shoulder injury ahead of Monday night’s clash with Canterbury. Fullback Lachlan Coote is also battling to recover from a nagging groin problem that has sidelined him for the past month.<br>• The second-placed Titans will be without fullback Preston Campbell and back-rower Anthony Laffranchi for tomorrow night’s trip to Cronulla. Campbell has a hamstring strain and Laffranchi a shoulder injury.<br>• The makeup of the Melbourne side to take on Wests Tigers remains up in the air with both Greg Inglis and Todd Lowrie suffering from the flu and Brett Finch battling a hand injury, although all three are likely to play.