By CHRIS BARCLAY
WARRIORS 48 BULLDOGS 22
SYDNEY - A stunning five-try haul from Francis Meli spearheaded the New Zealand Warriors through the first week of the National Rugby League (NRL) play-offs with a stunning 48-22 annihilation of premiership favourites the Bulldogs at Sydney Showground here tonight.
Faced with elimination if Newcastle or Brisbane won and they lost, the Warriors steamed into the second week with a sublime nine-try massacre.
Meli’s haul carried his tally for the season to 23 -- eclipsing Sean Hoppe’s 19 scored in the Auckland club’s inaugural season in 1995.
The Warriors will not know who they play next week until the fourth qualifying final between Brisbane and Penrith tomorrow but their title rivals will be looking over their shoulders after viewing the tape.
Meli and centre Clinton Toopi targeted the Bulldogs’ shonky right side defence to carve up the Bulldogs in midfield where Kiwis centre Nigel Vagana and Hazem El Masri were pinpointed mercilessly.
The Warriors held a deserved 16-4 halftime lead and then survived the sinbinning of fullback Brent Webb to hold off a brief Bulldogs resurgence that yielded tries to El Masri and prop Mark O’Meley.
Webb was yellow-carded for a holding down Vagana after a rare attacking break in the 46th minute and although prop O’Meley flew over two minutes later to level the scores at 16-16, Meli’s second and third tries had the Warriors ahead by 10 by the time Webb returned.
Motu Tony, a late replacement for the ill Tevita Latu, kept the points flowing when he slipped Willie Mason’s attempted tackle in the 59th minute.
Webb scooted clear for his second after Toopi again killed the Bulldogs down the right and when Sione Faumuina crossed under the posts after a mesmerising 70m run the home supporters among a crowd of 18,312 flooding for the exits.
Kiwis wing Matt Utai, one of the Bulldogs’ best, crossed for a consolation try as the Warriors dropped their intensity but Meli inevitably had the final say when he notched his fifth two minutes from the hooter.
Warriors coach Daniel Anderson had the luxury of resting playmaker Stacey Jones with 16 minutes remaining.
Jones was in superb touch, comprehensively outplaying Kangaroos’ hopeful Brent Sherwin while the pack obliterated their opponents making yardage at will.
Meli set the tone with tries in the second and 11th minutes as the Warriors effortlessly reprised their form of the past three weeks.
In contrast, the Bulldogs were made a panicked, error-ridden start and apart from a minor resurgence in the second quarter and straight after halftime when they drew level they were blitzed as the Warriors made a mockery of what was the tightest defence in the competition.