Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Warriors defeat a reality check

Ben Henry of the Warriors tackles Adam Cuthbertson of the Knights. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Henry of the Warriors tackles Adam Cuthbertson of the Knights. Photo / Getty Images

Warriors 19
Knights 24

While we heard all manner of fantastic future promises and grandiose visions for change off the field over the last week, on the park unfortunately not much has changed.

The Warriors still seem unable to string together consistent performances and last night was a brutal reality check. They retain a soft underbelly and a lack of NRL street smarts, and every other team in the competition knows it.

Their inexperienced core is a definite factor but that can't be everything. Sooner or later individual players need to take responsibility for staying switched on and focused for the full 80 minutes. It still isn't happening and isolated moments of brilliance just won't suffice. We accept that this team is a developing side but last night's loss was inexcusable. The Warriors had the Knights on the ropes - leading 18-0 after 16 minutes and with all the momentum. But they let Newcastle back into the match, conceding a series of soft tries and barely creating a chance in the second half.

"We were struggling", said Knights captain Danny Buderus. "But we got back into the match and started to believe."

We shouldn't underestimate the Knights effort - they look a team on the rise and have now won four of their last five games. And this victory was more clear cut than it seemed, as Newcastle also had three close shaves with the video referee.

Coming off four defeats in their last seven games, and with tough road trips to come, victory was non negotiable for the home side last night. They had reasons to be confident, having won seven of the previous eight encounters between the two sides, including the last five straight.

The Knights have been a true Jekyll-and-Hyde club in 2012, with the form they showed in their crushing win over Manly last week all too infrequent.

Manu Vatuvei was a game day withdrawal, succumbing to a tight hamstring, while Steve Rapira was injured in the pre-game warm up, giving Sam Lousi a rare chance at NRL level.

Feleti Mateo was a man on a mission from the kickoff. The Knights hung off him - a strange tactic against a man who amassed 85 offloads last year. He has been quieter on that front in 2012 but the magic was back early on last night. He drew in three defenders before giving Nathan Friend a clear run to the line in the sixth minute.

Two minutes later, he snaked across field once again, creating enough doubt in the defensive line before releasing Shaun Johnson, who hopped skipped and stepped his way through for his ninth try of the year.

Now Mateo was feeling irresistible. Twice he threw 'no look' passes that found their mark before another precise ball put Ben Matulino into space for the Warriors' third try in the 16th minute.

Despite looking shellshocked, the Knights worked their way back into the game. They engineered a smart try to Akuila Uate, though the defensive positioning of Johnson and Omar Slaimankhel was questionable.

After Jacob Lillyman dropped the ball in his own half in the shadows of halftime, Kevin Naiqama scorched down the left wing to score, in what was a mirror image of the Knights' first try.

The defensive uncertainty came from Konrad Hurrell and Bill Tupou, who were like statues as Darius Boyd ran at them. The signs were positive last week against Brisbane but last night reminded again that there are still huge defensive question marks over this side, and that remains the biggest impediment to their top eight prospects.

There was more shaky defence after the break, with no urgency to cover a towering Mullen bomb, but the Warriors received a major let off with Uate inexplicably dropped the ball in the act of scoring. Unfortunately the lesson was not heeded and Tahu's long range try, coming after the Warriors had been hot on attack, was the softest of the lot.

The Knights smelt blood and worse was to come. Slaimankhel - who has yet to show he is up to NRL level - will have nightmares about his pass straight to Gagai who ran 80 metres to score. Admittedly the winger had been left posted on the fifth tackle but it was still a regrettable error of judgement.

This result should be the death knell for the Warriors' finals hopes, and on last night's performance maybe it is a blessing in disguise.

Warriors 19 (N. Friend, S. Johnson, B. Matulino tries, J. Maloney 3 goals, drop goal) Knights 24 (A. Uate, K. Naiqama, T. Tahu, D. Gagai tries, T. Roberts 4 goals). Halftime: 19-12.

- Herald on Sunday

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