Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Cursed oval looms for game against Tigers

The only Warriors win at Leichhardt Oval came in Ruben Wiki's 300th NRL game. Photo / Getty Images
The only Warriors win at Leichhardt Oval came in Ruben Wiki's 300th NRL game. Photo / Getty Images

For the Warriors to regain the winning habit next week, they will have to trump a resurgent Tigers side - and overcome their cursed history at Leichhardt Oval.

Since they came into the competition in 1995, the Auckland club have recorded just one victory at the suburban Sydney ground. Statistically, it is one of their worst venues, along with WIN Stadium in Wollongong and Manly's Brookvale Oval.

The Tigers hierarchy seem to be aware of this fact; despite playing only a handful of games at the ageing ground (they will play there four times in 2013, played four in 2012, three in 2011), matches against the Warriors in the past three seasons have always been staged there.

It's an old-fashioned ground, in the best traditions of 1970s and 80s league. The crowd is on top of the players and fans are particularly vociferous; a constant stream of banter and abuse is directed at the opposition, while the referees are reminded to "get 'em onside" for the entire 80 minutes.

"It's a very hostile place," recalls former Warriors captain Awen Guttenbeil. "Most of the time now, you play in stadiums but it's an old school ground that takes you back. I remember running out there in one of my earliest games; the fans were leaning over into the players' tunnel, yelling abuse and spitting at you. They truly love their league there but it can also be pretty feral."

First-grade league has been played at Leichhardt since 1934, with the ground hosting more NRL games than any other venue. The Tigers moved their home base to Parramatta Stadium in 1994 but it was an unpopular switch and they returned to the inner-Sydney ground in 1997.

"It can be a very intimidating place to go and it all starts from when you arrive there and get off the bus," says Guttenbeil. "But you need to take the ground out of the equation and that is what the Warriors have to do on Friday."

The Warriors' first match at Leichhardt was memorable for all the wrong reasons. They lost 17-8 in 1999, with both captain Matthew Ridge and Nigel Vagana sent off for "manhandling" the referee. It wasn't much more than jostling but resulted in both players serving suspensions.

The equivalent clash in 2000 was the first home match for the new West Tigers' joint-venture club and suitably dramatic. The Warriors held a healthy halftime lead but the Tigers gradually came back into the contest and a dropped goal 15 minutes from time by Craig Field was ultimately the difference. In one of the more bizarre incidents, Warriors' centre Scott Petherbridge took a conversion attempt while the video referee was still assessing a possible try. He missed but was ordered to take it again after try was awarded. He missed again and was also sent off later in the game, the third dismissal in two years at Leichhardt.

The Warriors' only win there came in 2008. Travelling without injured stars Steve Price and Brent Tate, the Auckland club were celebrating Ruben Wiki's 300th NRL game and rose to the occasion to honour the bearded prop. They won 28-26, though two Tigers' tries in the last four minutes almost spoiled the party, with golden point avoided only when a final conversion attempt flew wide.

In 2011, the Warriors held the lead until deep into the second half, thanks to tries from Simon Mannering and Krisnan Inu. However, the home side rallied to score two tries in the final 12 minutes to seal a 20-12 victory.

Last year's match was even more frustrating. The Warriors completely dominated the first half but led only 10-0, against a team fielding a couple of rookies and missing key men like Robbie Farah and Gareth Ellis. Careless errors allowed the Tigers back into the match in the second half and they closed the game out 24-22, leaving the Warriors to contemplate a bitter defeat ahead of a bye.

Friday's match also comes ahead of their second 2013 bye and against a Tigers' side who have won four of their last six matches (including victories over the Storm and Canberra), after an awful run to start the season.

Benji Marshall has traditionally played well against the club of his homeland and will want to prove a point up against Shaun Johnson.

- Herald on Sunday

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