Almanac Rugby League – Finals Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Come back to 1995 with me for a moment. The ARL expanded their competition by introducing four new teams – the Western Reds, the South Queensland Crushers (featuring the incomparable St John Ellis), the Auckland (subsequently New Zealand) Warriors and the North Queensland Cowboys.

With my early childhood years split between Mackay and Brisbane, I was torn between my incumbent team (the Broncos) and the new kids on the North Queensland block. Maybe it was a case of going back to my roots or simply the desire to cheer on ‘little brother’ against the Brisbane juggernaut, but for better or worse, my allegiances headed north.

16 years on, North Queensland and New Zealand haven’t exactly been the poster children of success. Zero premierships and a lone grand final appearance apiece, along with three wooden spoons for the Cowboys. Each have had extended periods without seeing finals action at all and overall winning strike rates of less than 50 per cent (34 per cent for the Cowboys, 47 per cent for the Warriors) coming into 2011.

The life of Warriors and Cowboys fans has been more famine than feast.

All of which added to the tension of this round 26 encounter. For only the second time ever, the Cowboys and Warriors are both finals bound.

However, the nuances of the McIntyre finals system left plenty to be played for in this match. With St George Illawarra having defeated Penrith and a likely victory for the Wests Tigers in the offing, the loser was staring down seventh place and a must-win match against Manly in Sydney, whilst the winner would finish fifth (Cowboys) or sixth (Warriors) and potentially survive a loss in the first week of the finals.

Extending the famine/ feast analogy, imagine two starving people fighting over a solitary T-bone steak and you’re getting close to the intensity and sense of urgency in this match-up. It wasn’t a case of both clubs wanting this badly – both clubs needed this.

It was unsurprising then that the early exchanges brought about an intensity surplus but a composure deficit, with a string of early penalties conceded (primarily by the Cowboys) and one failed attempt to find touch when the Cowboys received a penalty.

The Warriors were the first team to settle, and 13 minutes into the game Shaun Johnson launched a speculative bomb that Matt Bowen and Brent Tate chose to let bounce. The decision would prove critical, as Johnson pounced on the unclaimed pill and fired it out to Krisnan Inu who scored in the corner. James Maloney added the extras from out wide and the Warriors would play from six in front.

The Cowboys would respond quickly – in the 19th minute Bowen patiently ran to the line before opting for a neat cut-out pass that found Kalifa Faifai Loa for the try that would see the scores tied at six after a sideline conversion from Johnathan Thurston.

Nonetheless, the Warriors generally had the better of play, with Maloney the key orchestrator of their attack. Just before the half hour mark, he drifted right before a show-and-go saw him slice the Cowboys defensive line wide open – two passes later, Lance Hohia was in adjacent to the sticks and the Warriors were up by six once again. Whilst his second half brought with it a couple of errant plays, Maloney was the best player of the higher quality first half.

The last few moments of the first half were pivotal – on the back of consecutive penalties, the Cowboys had three attacking sets of six in a row but were unable to pierce the Warriors defensive line and continued to trail 12-6 at ‘oranges’, as our New Zealand commentary team so frequently refer to it.

The second half was not one you’d ever choose to show a potential newcomer to rugby league as a way to enthuse them about this great game, with errors and soft penalties dominated proceedings. Matt Scott was the best for the Cowboys, consistently asking the tough questions of the New Zealand defence whilst getting through plenty himself. However, the second half really belonged to one man – Simon Mannering.

A quick bit of history: Mannering made his club debut in Round 16 of 2005, two months before his 19th birthday. However 2006 was his ‘coming of age’ season, a year that saw him make his Test debut for the Kiwis and establish himself as an integral part of the Warriors line-up, first in the centres and subsequently in the back row. In 2010 he became the youngest ever Warriors captain at the age of 23 – to appoint such a young man as Steve Price’s successor spoke volumes of the esteem in which he was (and is) held.

At the risk of stating the obvious, leaders are supposed to lead from the front. Fortunately for Warriors fans, that’s exactly what Mannering did, working tirelessly in both attack and defence. Just as importantly though, he controlled the tempo of their attack and reined things back in on each occasion where the typical New Zealand exuberance with the football was inappropriate. This was particularly important after a bad defensive read from Ray Thompson saw Inu waltz in for a second try untouched to extend the lead to 18-6 after 63 minutes. Mannering ensured that the Warriors would not beat themselves and ultimately that proved enough.

New Zealand were clearly the better team on the night and deserved both the victory and their elevation into the top six, from where a first week finals loss does not necessitate Mad Monday commencing shortly afterwards.

For Cowboys fans such as myself though, while it’s very nice to be back at the proverbial finals dining table in 2011, the likelihood of our hunger finally being sated by a premiership feast has diminished substantially. Nonetheless, where there’s life, there’s hope. Bring on ‘fortress Brookvale’ and the Sea Eagles next week.

NEW ZEALAND 18 (Tries: Inu 2, Hohaia Goals: Maloney 3/4)
NORTH QUEENSLAND 6 (Tries: Faifai Loa Goals: Thurston 1/1)

Venue: Mt Smart Stadium
: 20,082
3- Simon Mannering (NZ), 2- James Maloney (NZ), 1- Matthew Scott (NQ)
Milestones: Krisnan Inu was (incorrectly) referred to as ‘graceful when taking the ball’ for the first time in his career.

About Cliff Bingham

Co-author of The Punters Guide to the 2013 AFL Season & writer for the 2012 Rugby League Almanac.

Leave a Comment