As steps forward go, the Warriors’ huge leap on Sunday must rate as one of the most hard-earned paces in the club’s history.
Coming off consecutive losses-from-in-front against quality opposition, the Warriors did everything possible to complete what would have been a searingly painful trifecta against the Roosters. Having turned in a fine first half display to lead 12-4, the Warriors duly butchered two golden opportunities to take complete control in the opening minutes of the second half.
Shaun Johnson, a newly minted Warrior after signing a contract reportedly worth $1 million a season mid-week, clutched his hands to his head after Ryan Hoffman inexplicably let a pass go by him to butcher a three-on-one play that should have resulted in a try. Every member of the Warrior nation must have then done likewise as Johnson offered an intercept pass to Shaun Kenny-Dowall that the veteran Warrior-killer from Ngaruawahia gleefully accepted.
The score was SKD’s 13th against the Warriors; yet another painful riposte to the club that passed on him as an aspiring junior.
Warriors watchers have seen this dance countless times before, and plenty of late. Scenting blood, the Roosters besieged a Warriors line that would crack sooner or later.
Only this time it didn’t. The defensive effort of a Warriors team not noted for its stoicism was the rugby league version of The Alamo; brave, but doomed. That was confirmed by Mitchell Pearce’s go-ahead field goal with five minutes to play.
The fateful intervention that turned proceedings on their head came from the most unlikely of sources – an Australian referee blowing an innocuous, kickable penalty with just two minutes to play. The number of times the Warriors have benefited from such calls in their 22 years in the NRL can be counted on a fingerless hand.
Still, it was no done deal. Johnson needed to slot an angled 24m kick to complete the fairytale. It’s unlikely the weight of his newly-signed contract will ever weigh heavier. Had he missed he may have wanted to avoid social media for a decade or two.
The 90 seconds Johnson took to line up his kick were truly excruciating, at least for those watching. Johnson seemingly had ice in his veins. His strike was pure, providing immense relief to both his twitter feed and Warriors fans who will be desperately hoping the signs of growth under Stephen Kearney are genuine and potentially permanent.
The victory improved the Warriors to 4-5 on the season, and bumped them a couple of spots up the ladder to the not-so-lofty position of 11th. But, after nearly knocking off the Raiders and Storm on the road, they inflicted what was just a third defeat of the season on the resurgent Roosters. That the victory owed as much to an indomitable spirit as the undoubted skill of the likes of Johnson and brilliant captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck made this feel very much like a watershed moment.
After a five-year absence, the Warriors might very well be back.