Up the Wahs! Warriors advance after crushing Knights

Up the Wahs! Warriors advance after crushing Knights

Warriors 40

Knights 10

If you are going to play your biggest match in more than a decade, why not come up with a performance for the ages?

If you are going out in front of the largest crowd of your season, why not give them memories for a lifetime?

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Man, Auckland needed this. The country needed this. And the Warriors needed this. In the midst of a depressing election campaign, a cost-of-living crisis and a rain-soaked winter, this is the kind of moment people will be talking about for weeks and months. Maybe even years.

The Warriors are the feel-good sports story of the year and they added another spellbinding chapter on Saturday night, with a remarkable 40-10 win over the Newcastle Knights to advance to the preliminary final.

They haven’t played better than this all season. Hell, they haven’t played this well in a big match for years, with seven tries amid plenty of other opportunities.

Newcastle were gallant and did well to hang in there for 60 minutes, before the levee eventually broke, leading to the kind of feverish atmosphere rarely seen in this country.

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But this was way more than a match. This was redemption, celebration, carnival and homecoming all wrapped into one. It was tense for a long time but was always going to be in the first home final for 15 years.

Warriors fans packed out Mt Smart. Photo / Photosport

Shaun Johnson added another chapter to his legend with a brilliant performance, after being in doubt all week with a dodgy calf. Short of entering the arena on a white horse, there wasn’t much more he could have done as he steered the ship brilliantly.

But there were heroes everywhere, from the outside backs – who shut down the much-vaunted Newcastle centres – to the middle forwards, who gradually overwhelmed their opposites in the ruck.

This was also a victory for coach Andrew Webster and his staff, who got the game plan spot on. The Knights had a shorter turnaround – and desperately missed halfback Jackson Hastings – but they were never allowed to settle. Even when they got going, the Warriors had a response.

The home side made an unbelievable start, with three tries in the opening 11 minutes. The first try came following an error in Newcastle’s first set, seconds after a Warriors chant had engulfed the stadium, which seemed to spook the Knights.

From the turnover, the Warriors clicked into gear before a neatly delayed Johnson pass sent Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad across in the second minute. That sent the crowd into delirium, but there was more. Much more.

Hulking prop Addin Fonua-Blake blended power and nimble footwork to find a way through after another slick attacking set.

The Knights were rattled while the Warriors were faultless, with Dominic Young barrelled over the sideline as Newcastle tried to go wide. Minutes later the Warriors had extended their lead, going from east to west before Marcelo Montoya dived over in the corner.

It was an impressive lead but the Knights – who had barely touched the ball – were always going to come back. The Warriors conceded their first penalty in the 17th minute, which released the pressure valve. The visitors built pressure – camped in the Warriors 22 – and a try looked inevitable, though it was a poor concession as Rocco Berry and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak got their wires crossed, to allow a Greg Marzhew overlap.

From there the match developed into a grind, with the Knights doing well to gain parity in the ruck. That meant the Warriors were often kicking from inside their own half, though they still had more of the chances, with Wayde Egan twice going close from dummy half, with the lingering feeling the Warriors had left points out there.

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That sentiment intensified after the break, with a Dylan Lucas try inside two minutes after the restart. It was fortunate on two counts, with the suspicion of a forward pass and a turnover off a kick, but the Knights made their own luck.

Just when the Warriors needed something, they were sparked by a Tohu Harris break as he wound back the years. From that momentum, Dylan Walker stormed onto the ball to crash over, via the post, before an epic celebration with fans watching on from the ground-level bar.

Dylan Walker celebrates his try. Photo / Photosport
Dylan Walker celebrates his try. Photo / Photosport

The next 15 minutes were the pivotal period of the half, as Newcastle were a converted try away from making things edgy. But the Warriors held strong, playing smart, tough football and not giving them an opening.

Then came the epic finale. It started with Berry’s 59th-minute try, as the youngster showed great poise to snatch Watene-Zelezniak’s offload, then duck his way over. Four minutes later a trademark sweeping move saw Watene-Zelezniak finish in the corner, as the party really started.

The crowd began to serenade the Knights – “hey, hey, hey, goodbye” – before Bayley Sironen’s late try iced the game.

Warriors 40 (Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Addin Fonua-Blake, Marcelo Montoya, Dylan Walker, Rocco Berry, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Bayley Sironen tries; Adam Pompey 6 cons)

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Knights 10 (Greg Marzhew, Dylan Lucas tries; Kalyn Ponga con)

Halftime: 16-4

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