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The New Zealand Warriors are the best story of the NRL this year – and the fairytale will continue for another week at least.
The Warriors belted Newcastle 40-10 to book a spot in next Saturday’s preliminary final against Brisbane.
Suncorp Stadium will be rocking. And so was Go Media Stadium on Saturday, from the moment the Warriors took the field.
They were up 16-0 after just 12 minutes, with tries to Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Addin Fonua-Blake and Marcelo Montoya.
How amazing would it have been to be inside the venue when the crowd went into overdrive, waving signs and singing after Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scored to all-but seal the win just after the hour.
The final 20 minutes will stay with the players forever.
Addin Fonua-Blake celebrates after scoring an early try.Credit: Getty
The Warriors have given up so much over the past few years because of COVID. They were shown a little leniency in 2020, when they bunkered down on the Central Coast and were allowed to fish and swim, but the locals back home were still starved of live football.
Saturday was basically an emotional homecoming three years in the making.
The side’s brightest star, Shaun Johnson, came into the game with a calf injury but looked the goods. He is odds-on to win the Dally M Medal.
Johnson told the Matty Johns Show after the game that even the Knights were backing them to go all the way.
Andrew Webster and Shaun Johnson.Credit: Getty
“A couple of the Knights boys, they’re good fellas, and they were coming up to us and saying on the quiet, ‘Up the Wahs’,” Johnson said.
“To get this last home game here, and to say ‘thank you’ to our fans and the way we played tonight, it’s really special.”
First-year head coach Andrew Webster is favourite for coach of the year honours.
Imagine Webster leading the Warriors to victory next week and then going up against former club Penrith in the big dance.
Few will give the Warriors any hope of downing the red-hot Broncos next weekend. The Queensland heavyweights have an unbelievable forward pack, powerful speedy backs, and little general Adam Reynolds calling the shots. They’ve also had a week off.
And what about Reece Walsh? The livewire fullback was with the Warriors, but they allowed him to return home so long as it was not with NRL newcomers the Dolphins. At some stage this week, the Warriors will regret that one.
A proud Webster said his team would be more than ready for the Broncos, and “you want to go to their backyard and try and win”.
Speaking after the game, he said: “In big moments in big games, you just want the boys to be themselves, and to just remember what got them there.
“We won 16 games this season, we deserved a top-four finish, we deserved a home semi-final.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad takes the ball at pace.Credit: Getty
“My biggest fear is we weren’t going to be ourselves, and we were going to try and make something up, or think we had to do something different.
“The calm in the group, particularly the back end of the week, was amazing.
“And on a big stage like that, and being at home with a crowd like that who help you, can sometimes add pressure because you feel like you’ve got to repay everyone.
“But I thought the boys were so calm and smart under pressure.”
Addin Fonua-Blake crosses the line.Credit: Getty
Webster said Johnson was a big chance of dropping out, and the only time he was nervous during the game was with 10 minutes to go when, “he was double right-foot stepping and carrying on like he was 18”.
“That was frustrating, and I was like, ‘calm down’ … he was carrying on like a lunatic.”
The best thing about the Warriors is they have belief and nothing to lose, which is a dangerous combination.
Johnson, who was given an early mark, is experienced, Fonua-Blake is among the top three props in the game, and Tohu Harris has become New Zealand’s answer to Isaah Yeo, no doubt thanks to Webster’s Penrith background.
The Knights will lose no admirers. Kalyn Ponga and coach Adam O’Brien will head into the summer knowing they have what it takes to go all the way in the next year or two, rather than facing questions about commitment and contracts.
“It’s funny, we didn’t deserve to end like that, but we deserved to end like that,” O’Brien said.
“It’s hard at the moment because we’ve set high standards, and for us to be just OK with that performance given what we’ve done for the last 11 weeks, that wouldn’t mean progress for the club.
“I’m glad it’s hurting all of us. We can’t start games like that … we were running on empty at the end with some busted troops.”
The Broncos got home 26-22 without their Origin stars when they met the Warriors in Napier midway through the season. September, however, can make men do strange things.
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