Like a rudderless ship, a depleted Warriors side showed they are nothing without Shaun Johnson, going down 22-12 to table-topping Manly in an arm wrestle at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday.
If the crowd of 19,199 came for a intense game, they got it but, after holding out for 60 minutes, the floodgates opened and the Sea Eagles showed the Mt Smart Stadium fortress is nothing of the sort.
It was always going to be tight. Manly in their past six games have held teams to 16 points or less on all but one occasion and across the season have only leaked an average of only three tries per match. The Warriors, on the other hand, are all about the attack.
There were a number of tantalising clashes, including Peta Hiku up against Manu Vatuvei, Kieran Foran against Leuluai and Steve Matai up against a much more inexperienced Warriors centre-wing pairing in Ngani Laumape and Konrad Hurrell.
The Warriors were thrown early when injury ruled out their main playmaker in Johnson, who has not missed a match since the end of 2012.
Johnson injured his groin at the team’s final training on Saturday and was replaced in the starting line-up by Thomas Leuluai, with 19-year-old debutant Tui Lolohea coming onto the interchange bench.
The loss of Johnson was noticeable in the Warriors’ playing style with Chad Townsend unable to match Johnson’s tactical kicking prowess. Fullback Sam Tomkins did his best to help out but the team were clearly less coherent without Johnson.
The Warriors were also without back rower Feleti Mateo, another key playmaker, who had suffered a calf injury at training earlier in the week. Mateo was replaced by Sam Rapira on the interchange bench.
It was Daly Cherry-Evans who should get the Manly team’s praises after two try-saving feats, both on Vatuvei. Just before half-time he ankle tapped Vatuvei, who was at full stride towards the try line, and just after the half he managed to get his arm under the ball to hold up Vatuvei over the try line.
It hadn’t been all their way though. From the buzzer Thomas Leuluai slotted straight in and a move that looked like Johnson was on the park saw Hurrell muscle over after only just over a minute after an early mistake by the Sea Eagles. Chad Townsend, having been handed the kicking duties, converted.
Manly barely crossed into the Warriors’ half in the first 10 minutes.
Again the penalty count was heavily in favour of the Warriors in the early stages of the game, allowing the Auckland-based side to have a large portion of possession.
But, the Warriors’ tactical kicking was lacking and with Manly making quick play of the ball, the Warriors, after about 20 minutes, started to look less composed.
Consistent pressure and the Warriors giving away a penalty under their posts saw Cheyse Blair dive over in the corner after 19 minutes despite the efforts of Leuluai.
Foran was causing all sorts of headaches for the Warriors. He wasn’t scared to attack the Warriors line but it was Kiwi wing Peta Hiku who scored in the corner after outgunning Manu Vatuvei for pace after 30 minutes. At this stage it was all Manly.
Cherry-Evans completed a beautiful 40/20 to put the Sea Eagles straight back down in the Warriors’ half soon after and a mistake by Sam Tomkins saw Manly get a scrum feed. Only a subsequent mistake by Cherry-Evans relieved the pressure on the Warriors.
The teams went to the break locked in an arm wrestle with possession all but equal, and both having made plenty of tackles. The Warriors were only completing 60 per cent of their sets by half-time, the Sea Eagles a touch over 70 per cent.
The impact of Ben Matulino was noticeable after the break with an offload that looked to have sent Ben Henry over before it was ruled forward. Minutes later he was involved in a tackle that gave the Warriors a penalty. The impetus saw Vatuvei muscle over the try line but he was held up by Cherry-Evans.
The Warriors continually hammered the Sea Eagles’ line but the fortress-like defence stood the test.
The nail in the coffin for the Warriors was after 65 minutes when Hiku seemed to glide over for his second try. The Warriors seem to all but give up after that with Cherry-Evans jumping on the end of a slick move and dotting down under the posts.
No one told captain Mannering though, who scored and all but sprinted back to halfway to get his team back on the board. It was all too little, too late.