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You won’t hear it spoken about in the Mt Smart Stadium corridors but rest assured the Warriors haven’t forgotten about the pain of last year’s sudden exit from the finals race.

Expected to run deep after finishing the 2010 regular season in fifth place, the Kiwi outfit was instead dumped out in Week One after going down to the Gold Coast then looking on in horror as both Sydney Roosters and Canberra beat sides above them on the ladder.

The Warriors head into tomorrow night’s blockbuster against North Queensland knowing that a loss will put them in danger of another early exit, with veteran lock Micheal Luck admitting the pain of last season was a huge motivating factor as they look to ensure a high finish.

“It’s not something we’ve spoken about but I think that everyone that was there will remember what it felt like to have things taken out of our control,” Luck told today.

“We finished fifth and thought we might have a second bite at it but by the time we got home on Saturday night one side had already gone down and then Canberra beat Penrith the second game. We were gone on Saturday night. But if you win you’re right – you keep playing – so that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Such is the closeness of this year’s premiership race that the Warriors could finish as high as fourth or as low as seventh depending on results this weekend.

Narrow losses to Brisbane and St George Illawarra in recent weeks have hindered the side’s cause following a run of good form during the back half of the season but Luck said the Warriors were well prepared for the attacking brilliance of North Queensland tomorrow night.

“Last weekend the Dragons turned up the tempo a bit and we didn’t respond as well as we should have but we’ve addressed that this week and now it’s on all of us to be better this weekend,” he said. “I don’t think we’re too far away from where we need to be.

“You look at things like basic missed tackles, errors and completion rates but they’ve all been okay – it’s just letting them slip at crucial times. The key for us is recognising that because in big games you’ve got to be playing for 80 minutes, not 75.

“That’s what we did against Brisbane up there and it cost us the win and again against St George. They’re two pretty classy sides and we can take some encouragement out of that I suppose but at the same time we need to learn the lesson. If we want to be contenders we need to be good for 80 minutes.”

Asked if he considered the Warriors to be a genuine title hope, Luck said: “If we play to our potential we are. We’re a reasonably experienced side. We’ve got a lot of young guys but most of them have been around for a while now.

“We’ve got a few players that can do things that not many others can – guys like Feleti Mateo, Shaun Johnson and Kevin Locke. Whenever you’ve got those guys in your side you’re a chance of doing something from anywhere on the field.

“To be honest, it’s good to be playing in a side where we’ve all worked out our individual strengths. Everyone is up to speed on how each other plays so I’m looking forward to what will be an exciting month ahead, I hope.”

The Warriors have typically been fast finishers over the years, with three top-eight finishes in the past four years and a close call in 2008 when they knocked over minor premiers Melbourne in Week One before running into a red-hot Manly outfit in the grand final qualifier.

But Luck rated this year’s Warriors outfit as the best he had played in during his six years with the club.

“Probably in my time that’s certainly the case,” he said. “The 2008 side when we beat Melbourne in that first week of the finals, we were limping in that year and had blokes playing hurt. We didn’t have many guys to back-up.

“This year it’s a different story. We’ve got a pretty good side (Auckland Vulcans) playing in the NSW Cup that has a chance of getting the minor premiership and our under-20s side are minor premiers as well so there is a bit more depth there than maybe there has been previously.

“I suppose you only get so many opportunities in your career where you’ve got a side where everyone is fit and healthy and the key players are doing their jobs. I think that’s the case with us this year, so it would be nice to go on and do something special.”

Late NRL news:

•    Cowboys’ lock Dallas Johnson has been ruled out of the Warriors clash due to concussion, with Leeson Ah Mau taking his place in the 17. The Cowboys need just one try to hit 100 scored against the Warriors.

•    South Sydney are expecting five-eighth John Sutton to defy the pain barrier and take the field in tonight’s do-or-die clash with Newcastle at AusGrid Stadium. Sutton missed last week’s loss to Brisbane with a broken hand. The Rabbitohs are looking to overcome a hoodoo – only twice in the past 20 years have they won the final scheduled round of a season.

•    Vic Mauro and Tim Robinson have been named on an extended Manly bench for their clash with Brisbane on Sunday but coach Des Hasler is remaining tight-lipped about the final make-up of his squad following the suspension of Glenn Stewart last night. Co-skipper Jamie Lyon is focussed on adding to his enviable record against the Broncos – he’s won nine off 11 encounters and remains unbeaten since 2003.