Could this be the beginning of a new era of Kiwi domination? The Warriors have for some time now been the sleeping giant of the National Rugby League – a side that has thrilled and spilled in equal quantities – yet this season they have risen to the challenge when their season has been on the line. Much like the only other Warriors outfit to contest a grand final back in 2002 (when the likes of Stacey Jones, Ali Lauiti’iti, Clinton Toopi and current coach Ivan Cleary led the way), the 2011 Warriors are all class. Their game has been built around relentless second-phase play, speed around the rucks and the ability to produce those moments of brilliance that separate the haves from the have-nots. We look back at the moments that have defined their run to the 2011 Telstra Premiership grand final.
Slow Out of the Blocks
Even in their good years, the Warriors have typically taken their time to get the ball rolling and it was more of the same in 2011 as they fell to a 0-3 start to the year. Looking anything but the devastating attacking side that would storm home just a few months later, the Warriors fell to a 26-18 home defeat against Parramatta in Round 1, lost 20-12 against Wests Tigers in Round 2 then made it three losses from three starts with a 25-12 defeat to the Dragons. Coach Ivan Cleary didn’t panic, however, sticking with his chargers as they proceeded to win eight of their next nine games.
The Mateo Effect
The Warriors paid big money to lure star back-rower Feleti Mateo away from Parramatta this season and he has paid them back in spades. Forming a lethal combination with his outside backs on the left edge (Joel Moon earlier in the year and Lewis Brown more recently), Mateo finished the regular season as the No.1 offloader in the NRL with 68 in the regular season (now 83). His presence has been crucial to the evolution of the side’s attack because it is second-phase play that their game has been built on. Riding on the back of Mateo’s skills, speedsters Shaun Johnson, Kevin Locke and James Maloney have been able to cause all sorts of headaches for their opponents around the ruck.
No Fear of Playing in Melbourne
AAMI Park, and Olympic Park before it, have proved true home fortresses for Melbourne over the years – unless you happen to come from New Zealand. Put it down to the hefty Kiwi population south of the border or perhaps just the fact that the Warriors are used to long trips away – but whatever the reason, they boast by far the best away record against the Storm of any side in the NRL. That statistic came to the fore again in 2011 with the Warriors upsetting Melbourne 18-14 in Round 7. And they certainly showed no hesitation when they did it again in the grand final qualifier with a superb showing to claim a deserved 20-12 result.
Locke and Load
Having been dropped to the Warriors’ feeder club Auckland Vulcans late last year, Kevin Locke found himself behind both Glen Fisiiahi and Lance Hohaia in the pecking order but an injury to the former and a return to a utility role by the latter saw Locke given his chance to shine in the No.1 jersey. He didn’t disappoint. Combining raw speed around the rucks with a lethal kick return, Locke’s presence sparked the Warriors attack as they stormed their way into finals contention. His stats are certainly impressive. In 2011 Locke has run for 2916 metres (1578 from kick returns) at 127 metres per game, while adding 10 line-breaks, 10 try assists and 97 tackle-breaks.
Cleary Clears the Way
Warriors players were shocked to learn that coach Ivan Cleary – who has held the head coaching role since 2006 – was off to Penrith next season. Cleary remains popular among his players and has enjoyed tremendous success in his time, with four finals appearances in the past five years, but couldn’t say no to the security Penrith’s three-year deal guaranteed him. The big question was what impact the news would have on the Warriors – but it seems that it was business as usual at Mt Smart Stadium, with the club winning seven of their final nine regular season matches.
Shaun Johnson Debut
Warriors fans will remember June 4, 2011 as the night that a superstar was born. An injury to regular halfback Brett Seymour opened the door for 20-year-old Shaun Johnson to make his NRL debut against the Sydney Roosters in Round 13 in a moment that would ultimately transform the Warriors from outside premiership hopes to grands finalists and, potentially, premiers. Johnson had already been singled out by Andrew Johns as one to watch but little did we know just what was to come. In particular, two freak plays this season have highlighted exactly what Johnson is capable of. In Round 22 he scored a scintillating solo try that saw him beat six players on a thrilling 60-metre run. And he secured victory against Melbourne last week with a mesmerising cross-field run that left the Storm defence spinning as he sent Lewis Brown over for the match-winning try.
A Finals Warning
It was Round 20 when the Warriors fired a warning shot to their premiership rivals with a 48-16 thrashing of South Sydney. The Rabbitohs had plenty to play for themselves and were coming off a thrilling win over Sydney Roosters but were quickly brought back down to Earth as the Warriors ran in nine tries in a commanding performance away from home. James Maloney scored 16 points from a try and six goals while giant winger Manu Vatuvei crossed for a hat-trick.
Warriors Survive… Just
It’s remarkable to think that only three weeks ago the Warriors came within 40 minutes of another early elimination from the finals. A 40-10 thrashing at the hands of Brisbane in Week 1 of the finals was not only their worst performance of the season, it also meant that they had to rely on other results going their way to survive. When North Queensland led Manly 8-0 at half-time in the third qualifying final 24 hours later their season was on the precipice, but the Sea Eagles fought back to keep them alive and the Warriors woke from their brief slumber.
Back From the Brink
The Warriors again looked set for an early holiday when they trailed Wests Tigers 18-6 at half-time in their semi-final at the Sydney Football Stadium two weeks ago. It certainly didn’t look like being their night at that stage. Having let in two worryingly soft tries, they had also seen some marginal decisions go against them but after welcoming the halftime siren they returned in the second 40 a new side. Tries to Feleti Mateo and Lance Hohaia saw the Warriors close to within two points with 15 minutes remaining and when Krisnan Inu cleaned up the scraps from a last-ditch cross-field bomb to score they had completed the most remarkable of comebacks.
Against All Odds
The Warriors produced their finest display of the season to qualify for their second grand final with a thrilling 20-12 win over Melbourne at AAMI Park. Trailing 6-0 early after Sika Manu scored, the Kiwi club clicked into gear with two tries of their own through Bill Tupou and James Maloney. A long-range effort to Melbourne centre Beau Champion levelled the scores at 12 apiece but from there it was all the Warriors. They led 14-12 at half-time through a Maloney penalty goal and proceeded to run Melbourne ragged after the break before finally sealing the deal when Shaun Johnson’s dazzling 78th-minute run sent Lewis Brown over for the match-winning try.