If the Warriors are to build something for 2023, Friday’s night victory over Newcastle was a promising start.
Almost since his first day in the job, coach Andrew Webster has talked of creating a new culture at Mt Smart constructed around resilience and mental toughness, and it was on display in the tight 20-12 win in Wellington.
While their attacking execution was off in patches – whether it was timing, decision-making or fundamental skills – it was hard to be critical of their defence.
They scrambled superbly and resisted long periods of pressure, most noticeably late in the second half, with the game in the balance at 14-12.
There were a series of try-saving interventions, highlighted by a remarkable Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad effort, when he defied considerable odds to hold up Kalyn Ponga over the line.
“We weren’t smart at times – we made it hard for ourselves – but there were three big chunks of resilience that we had to have, and I’m really proud of that,” said Webster.
The coach emphasised it wasn’t going to be a one-off, something they had just brought to the season-opening party in the capital.
Instead, it’s a product of months of work and is something that will become part of the fabric of the team.
“We dug in really well, [but] it’s not a fluke,” said Webster. “We did it in the trial against Melbourne. It looks like if we keep going, it is going to be our DNA.”
Captain Tohu Harris, who managed a game-high 51 tackles, along with 16 runs for 100 metres in a staggering 80-minute effort, agreed there was a transformation in their ability to withstand pressure and hang on.
“There was a huge difference in terms of that resilience, that want to compete and turn up for each other,” noted Harris. “It’s not always going to be perfect, but if we have players that can turn up with an extra effort, that builds confidence and the team’s resilience, and it’s infectious.”
Defence is about attitude and organisation, and the Warriors ticked both boxes.
They mostly held their shape, and when tackles were missed, a teammate was there to mop up. They also stayed calm inside their own quarter, which Harris noted was a big difference from previous Warriors teams.
“We weren’t frantic - everyone was talking calmly, giving clear instructions and knew their job,” said Harris. “That is huge when you are defending your line.”
With seven new recruits, the win is important, ahead of tough away matches against the Roosters and Cowboys.
It will confirm the belief they are on the right track, and will be a shot of confidence after the awful end to last season.
But neither Webster nor Harris were getting carried away.
While the Warriors deserved the result – dominating most metrics, including yardage and line breaks (8-2) – it was closer than it should have been.
The Knights lost influential second rower Tyson Frizell early and withstood a 10-minute period in the second half period when they were down to 12 men.
They also saw Ponga removed at a crucial juncture – with the game in the balance – for an HIA check.
Despite that, Newcastle stayed in the contest.
The Warriors were guilty of not taking several good chances, after impressive lead-up play, which would have offered vital breathing space.
“I’m really happy for the boys,” said Webster. “To work as hard as they have - if you don’t get the result, you feel gutted for them. [But] we aren’t going to leave here celebrating [too much] because we have got so much to work on. We can’t just do that to ourselves every week.”
All of the new signings showed their value.
Webster paid special tribute to Nicoll-Klokstad, an influential presence after an early mistake.
“He was outstanding,” said Webster. “Talk about resilience - he drops the ball in the first set, and then bounces back to be one of the best players on the field.”
Dylan Walker also caught the eye, while Te Maire Martin had touches of class.
Hooker Wayde Egan was also highly impressive – sealing the result with his 73rd-minute try – but it was a team effort, with contributions across the 17.
“We kept turning up for each other,” concluded Webster.