Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Storming into contention for finals football

Creating space for halfback Shaun Johnson to work his magic will be crucial if the Warriors are to make the top eight. Photo / Getty Images
Creating space for halfback Shaun Johnson to work his magic will be crucial if the Warriors are to make the top eight. Photo / Getty Images

Warriors coach Matt Elliott won't countenance talk of the top eight just yet, but admits it could become a reality if they upset Melbourne this week.

The hard earned - though ultimately convincing victory over the Tigers on Friday - puts the Warriors on the cusp of the eight. They remain in 11th place but within a logjam of seven teams separated by only two points.

However, the Warriors have a tough run home. Six of their final seven games are against teams above them on the ladder, including heavyweights Manly, Cronulla and the Storm and even their softest assignment - St George - is at WIN Stadium, where they have an awful record. They will need at least four wins to secure a playoff berth and have just four home games remaining, which makes this Sunday's match even more important.

"I don't want to talk about the playoffs," Elliott told the Herald on Sunday. "Ask me again next week if we beat Melbourne. With all respect to Souths, I think the Storm are still the benchmark - especially as they are defending premiers.

[Friday's] win was important but we beat a side that is building. Melbourne are the finished product."

The Warriors aren't yet, but Friday was another crucial step. They were slightly off in the first half against a fired-up Tigers outfit, determined to win in Benji Marshall's last game at Leichhardt. The Tigers aren't a great side but are dangerous, especially at home as the Warriors have found many times to their cost. After the creditable defeat against Souths, a loss on Friday could have been terminal to their confidence, with the Storm, Sharks and Sea Eagles to face over the next fortnight.

From 14-6 down at halftime, the Warriors broke the match open in the third quarter and the final margin might have been greater, with several near misses on attack.

"We wanted to dominate two halves of football which obviously didn't happen," says Elliott. "But we managed to completely turn our mentality round in the second half which changed our intent, our effort, our application. It can be quite rare to do that in a football game and that is the most pleasing aspect, even if our performance wasn't always that pretty."

"We weren't playing well in the first half and needed to get back to basics," added captain Simon Mannering. "It was a danger game for us and it's always tricky coming off the bye but we earned this win."

Shaun Johnson deservedly gained most of the plaudits after a virtuoso display - "he held us together on attack" was Elliott's verdict - but Mannering was again one of the side's best, carrying the defensive burden along with Nathan Friend (49 tackles) and Elijah Taylor (44 tackles). He was rock solid in defence (31 tackles) and was often in the right place at the critical moments, one late retrieval of a loose ball defusing a dangerous Tigers attack. He also showed surprising pace to score the match-sealing try, outsprinting Chris Lawrence to a precise Johnson grubber, then celebrating with unbounded and untypical jubilation.

"I was pretty lucky there," laughed Mannering. "I got the jump on him and managed to stay in front to get there."

The defensive effort in the second half was admirable as they held the Tigers scoreless and there was real zip and zest on attack. Johnson was at the forefront of most raids and finding space for him is one of the keys to success over the next few weeks, as is being more clinical and finishing sets well.

The only sour note from the game was the pectoral injury to Glen Fisiiahi, which could put him out for the rest of the season.

Elliott has some welcome selection headaches in the pack, though. Rookie forward Suaia Matagi was extremely impressive on Friday night, making over 100m with 10 carries. He has shown promise in previous brief appearances but got nearly an hour against the Tigers.

His rampaging running style saw the Australian television commentators confuse him for Konrad Hurrell at one point and his propensity to run at the gap rather than the man makes a welcome change. Matagi will put pressure on the long established four prop rotation while utility Dominique Peyroux is also improving with every outing.

"We are building and we have got some improvement in us," says Elliott.

That will need to come this week."

- Herald on Sunday

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