The crowd was up and the anxiety levels down as the Warriors closed the opening quarter of their NRL campaign with the rarest of occurrences – a routine victory at Mt Smart Stadium.
The 22-10 victory over the Parramatta Eels means things are trending upwards nicely for Stephen Kearney’s three-win three-loss side. A crowd of 13,526 attended Sunday’s match – over 3000 more than a week earlier when the Warriors marked Kieran Foran’s debut with a comeback victory over the Titans. The Warriors kept the Titans scoreless in the second half of that match and their improved defence was again evident as they kept the Eels to just two tries on Sunday.
“It possibly could,” was coach Stephen Kearney’s measured response when asked if his team’s last three halves of football suggested he may be making progress in addressing the most glaring deficiency of recent seasons.
“That has been the work-on for us all pre-season and we’ll keep working on it. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that to win footy games you have to be able to defend.”
The numbers the team has put up through the first quarter of the season suggest there has been some improvement – and that plenty more is required. The 130 points the Warriors have conceded at an average of 21.66 compares favourably to the 25.04 points per game they shipped last season. . However, their defence still ranks 12th out of the 16 teams in the competition, explaining Kearney’s reticence to perform cartwheels just yet.
“Ah – we have got plenty of improvement in us,” he settles on when asked for his impression of the first six matches of his tenure.
A glance at the fixture list suggests that improvement needs to come quickly.
On Saturday night, the Warriors travel to Canberra to face what must be one of the biggest forward packs assembled in NRL history, followed by the traditional Anzac Day match against the Storm in Melbourne. Matches against the resurgent Roosters, the curiously underperforming Panthers, the table-topping Dragons, and Broncos round out a second quarter of the season that appears much tougher than the first.
“That’s just the business,” says Kearney of the next phase of the season. “It doesn’t matter who you get. It is about making sure that we prepare well to perform well. That is not going to change regardless of who we play, where they are on the table and where we play them.”
What will change, though, is the perception of what 2017 may hold for the Warriors. The next six games undoubtedly represent the toughest part of the club’s schedule. Should they survive the upcoming stretch in reasonable shape, their prospects of playing finals football for the first time in half a decade will be strong. If they falter, they may well look back on Sunday’s comfortable victory as the high point of their season.