The New Zealand Warriors continued their great form on the road this year and put themselves back in the top four hunt with an 18-12 win over the Dragons at Wollongong on Saturday afternoon.
A captain's performance from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and inspired efforts from Ken Maumalo and Issac Luke helped set up the unlikely win. They upended the joint venture side for only the second time in 13 attempts away from home, and for the first time at the venue in all since 1996.
The Warriors ran in three tries in the last ten minutes of the first half while Matt Dufty was in the sin bin, for an 18-nil lead at the break. They then spent most of the second half defending a slender lead after the Dragons got themselves back into the contest.
They did enough however to take a vital two points and go two from two against the early competition leaders this season. They have also cemented eighth spot, keeping the Tigers four points from the top eight with four rounds to play. With the Sharks and Broncos falling in their matches this week, the make-up of the top eight is still wide open. Meanwhile, the Dragons will be licking their wounds, dropping their fourth match in their past five and will have to regroup if they are to turn it around and make a play for the top four.
1. Captain leads from the front
Tuivasa-Sheck won't want to remember being out-stepped by Phillip Sami last week against the Titans and when his team needed it, he stepped up to the occasion.
Tuivasa-Sheck looked dangerous pretty almost every time he touched the ball, running for a colossal 239 metres (including 190 metres in the first half alone), making nine tackle breaks, two line breaks and one offload. His kick return running looked a lot better than it has the previous weeks. He was well supported by Maumalo on the left-wing, who ran for over 200 metres himself.
In the 29th minute, he looked set to score a try for himself off one of those line breaks when he put through a grubber kick for himself towards the line, but Matt Dufty pulled his shorts as he looked to gather the ball. After Dufty was sin-binned, Solomone Kata scored not long after putting the Warriors in front.
After an Isaac Luke had scored a few minutes later, Tuivasa-Sheck showed his prowess on defense, stopping a certain Dragons try in the 38th minute. With Tim Lafai over the line, Tuivasa-Sheck stripped the ball from him, raking it out loose.
One of the most electric players in the league, Tuivasa-Sheck admitted to NRL.com after the match he saw this match against the Dragons as personal, shouldering responsibility for the team's recently inconsistent run of form. He more than made up for it and with him hitting his straps, bodes well for the Warriors in their run towards the finals.
2. Vaughan under injury cloud
He's played 19 of the 21 regular season matches for the Dragons this season, missing the other two due to State of Origin, so it was understandably worrying to see back-rower Paul Vaughan go down early in the match and not return for the rest of the game.
Vaughan left the field in the 11th minute after appearing to twist his leg in the tackle of Adam Blair and Agnatius Paasi. Later in the match he was seen on crutches, his foot in a moon boot.
It is not immediately known whether the injury was to his ankle or knee, with a scan this week to determine that along with the extent of the injury. Coach Paul McGregor admitted to NRL.com it "did not look promising".
If Vaughan is ruled out for a period, perhaps for the season, it will be a major blow for the Dragons in losing one of their most consistent performers this season. Vaughan has played an average of 52 minutes per game this year, reliable for over 120 metres, whilst making 25 tackles per game. His presence in the back or front row will be sorely missed.
3. Warriors defense holds firm
For the second week running, the Warriors were held to nil in the second half. However, this week, their defense was a lot stronger in holding out the Dragons' attack after conceding twice early in the second half.
When Cameron McInnes and Luciano Leilua scored tries within the first ten minutes of the second half, thoughts would have crossed back to the Gold Coast last week when the Titans did much the same and ran away with the game. However, despite conceding six penalties to one, 61% of the possession and 59% of the territory, the Warriors defended staunchly for the better part of half an hour. There was a high rate for the front and back row alike as Simon Mannering, Issac Luke and Jazz Tevaga all made over 40 tackles; for Tevaga it was twice in two weeks. While the missed tackle count of 41 (31 in the second half alone) is another matter which really needs to be addressed, coach Stephen Kearney will have been pleased to have kept the Dragons out.
Shaun Johnson and Blake Green played good percentage football when it mattered, out-kicking Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop for metres, by 597 to 482, and with all-run metres between the two sides virtually the same (1,560 metres), the Dragons had to work slightly harder for their points. It was enough to get the Warriors over the line.
4. Dragons left to rue slow start, missed chances
The scoreline will say the Warriors won by six points but the Dragons were playing catch-up football after being down 18-nil at the break.
The Warriors did all their attacking in the first half and the sin-binning of Matt Dufty for a professional foul in the latter stages was the turning point as the Warriors ran in three tries in the last ten minutes. Not only that, but their four line breaks for the match were all made in the first half, as were ten of their 13 offloads for the match, where are considered to be when they are at their most dangerous. They made 23 missed tackles all up.
The second half was almost the opposite as the Dragons controlled possession, territory, the Warriors' offloading and the penalty count. It rewarded them with two early tries including one to Cameron McInnes from dummy-half, making up for his error on the line in the first half. But they struggled to gain any ascendency from there, being held scoreless for the last half an hour, not able to make use of the three line breaks they had in that time. They committed five errors; as many as they did in the first half, and conceded at crucial junctures to halt their charge at a win.
5. The Warriors - finals contenders? The Dragons - finals pretenders?
I've given up tipping on the Warriors now, having turned in an impressive 56 point turnaround in incorrect tipping over the last two weeks' matches against the Titans and Dragons.
They seem to be a lot more comfortable playing on the road this year than at home, with an 8-3 record away suggesting they'll be more than at home playing in Australia come finals time, even if they end up in the latter part of the top eight. There are obvious inconsistencies in this side which they will want to address but they are never out of form - they haven't lost over two in a row this season. Either way, to have essentially almost qualified for the finals for the first time since 2011 is a huge positive for the once struggling club. They could be a danger come finals time and they have the players to do it.
The Dragons conversely will go back to the drawing board, to address their fourth loss in five games. They started the season strongly as they did last year, with Origin quality in their backs and forwards. A similarly worrying trend started earlier in the season last year, which saw them inexplicably miss the finals. Again, although now well-advanced at the back end of the year, they have lost their way a bit and sit in fifth spot. The second half performance was encouraging to Paul McGregor, and they will at least have that in mind to build on for the final four rounds of the season.
What did you learn from the Warrior's shock win over the Dragons on Saturday? Let us know in the comments below.