In unfamiliar olive coloured ANZAC jerseys, the New Zealand Warriors ran out onto Netstrata Jubilee Oval to face Melbourne Storm after a tumultuous week which started with the axing of coach Stephen Kearney. Interim coach Todd Payten had just a few days to prepare for this game and it ended in an ugly 50-6 loss against one of the premiership's genuine contenders.
An early injury to Cameron Munster only helped the Warriors' cause, the star Storm five-eighth could barely walk on a knee which was twisted under him in a tackle. In the sixth minute, with the Warriors receiving a penalty deep inside Storm territory, Munster lay on his back having his knee heavily strapped. It didn't stop him contributing to a try-saving effort shortly after, causing Patrick Herbert to spill the ball as he was bundled into touch on the Storm try line.
There were certainly no indications that the Warriors weren't going to give this game every ounce of effort. They had the better of the attacking opportunities in the first ten minutes. More adventurous with the ball, they made several breaks, forcing the best out of the scrambling Storm defence.
Thirteen minutes into the game Josh Addo-Carr scooped up a Roger Tuivasa-Sheck grubber kick and took off down field, only to be stopped by a big Peter Hiku hit. A couple of passes and some Munster magic later and Tigers exchange student Paul Momirovski slid over the line for the first try of the game. Cameron Smith missed the conversion to leave the Storm with an early 4-0 lead.
The Warriors were forcing mistakes, whooping and cheering whenever they did, and dominating territorially. They were pressuring the Storm defence, which was first class and as always extremely difficult to breach. Defending out wide was Munster, who was clearly playing through a lot of pain on a knee which wasn't healing itself.
In the 24th minute, a pass from Cameron Smith found Dale Finucane, who passed to Jahrome Hughes who gave it onto Ryan Papenhuyzen who created an overlap with his sheer pace. He sent Suliasi Vunivalu on a run down the right-hand sideline, beating the cover defence, before bamboozling fullback Tuivasa-Sheck to cross untouched. Cameron Smith converted the try and against the run of play the Storm were doing what they do best, winning the big moments, accumulating points.
Three minutes later, Papenhuyzen was able to dive over from dummy-half. Another Cameron Smith conversion and the 18-0 score line was beginning to make a mockery of the genuine Warriors effort. Whether disheartened, or fatigued as the Storm upped their efforts, it was only two minutes later that a cross-field kick from Munster was spilt by Ken Maumalo, snapped up by Vunivalu and shovelled out to Momirovski for his second try of the night. Two more points to Cameron Smith and the score stretched to 22-0.
From the restart, the Storm started to tear the Warriors defence apart. The same problems Stephen Kearney faced during his tenure as coach were rearing their ugly heads again. The Warriors have real issues maintaining NRL standard intensity for a full 80 minutes. Opposition teams just have to ride out their peak periods and caplitilise when the heads drop and the hands find hips.
The Warriors came out after halftime fired up again and running hard at the Storm defence. They went the length of the field with the aid of a six again call to pepper the Storm line. A sweeping play and some slick passing and Herbert was over in the corner for the Warriors' first try. When Chanel Harris-Tavita converted to take the score to 22-6, five minutes of the second half had passed, and the Storm hadn't touched the ball.
Munster remained in the sheds after the break, icing that knee. The versatile veteran Cameron Smith moved to the halves. When the Storm did finally get the ball, Papenhuyzen crossed for his second try following more backline magic started by Cameron Smith. The Warriors challenged the try based on a decoy runner making contact with a defender and their challenge was unsuccessful. The score was 24-6 and the road back now looked improbable.
The Warriors had two chances to score tries on their right-hand side, but spilt the last pass on both occasions. Payten was now standing in the coaches' box, possibly wondering whether his head coach aspirations were misguided.
With 24 minutes remaining Vunivalu was in again, the converted try blew the score out to 32-6. There was a quarter of the game remaining and the real potential that the final score could be very embarrassing. The Storm were certainly not going to show any mercy, especially as their own bench was emptied by injury and HIA. Three minutes later Vunivalu crossed for his hat-trick and the score extended to 38-6. The road back was impossible.
Four minutes later, the other Smith, Brandon, crossed for a try of his own. The Storm led 44-6 and were keen to raise the half century. With six minutes remaining Addo-Carr joined the try-scorer's list and Cameron Smith kicked them to 50.
Stranded in Australia, with interim coach Payten in charge, the immediate future of the Warriors looks grim. The ARLC are currently trying to have some Warriors family members flown over from New Zealand, without going through quarantine. Whether that raises their spirits sufficiently to mount a late charge at the finals is yet to be seen. Unless they can somehow manage to limit their mistakes and play with full intensity for the entire 80 minutes they will continue to struggle.