The Warriors could not have scripted this journey any better.
They’ll head to Brisbane this weekend with a fully fit squad – pending assessments on Marata Niukore (knee) and Wayde Egan (head) – which has been a rare luxury this season. They face the Broncos at 9.50pm on Saturday.
They have an entire nation behind them – with plenty of new fans – as the biggest possible audience witnessed the barnstorming display against Newcastle, thanks to Saturday’s friendly 6pm kickoff time.
They’ve got momentum, confidence and belief, after the seven-tries-to-two, 40-10 victory.
And most importantly, they’ve got closer to their holy grail. All year, the Warriors have been chasing a true 80-minute performance of quality, execution, energy and hunger. They’ve come close – and been gritty against some big teams – without quite nailing it.
On Saturday, when it mattered most, they did it – and in spectacular fashion. It was a performance of drive and passion but also skill, as they fed off the emotion of the crowd but didn’t lose their heads.
“We got the balance right,” said captain Tohu Harris. “We weren’t overly aggressive but we still had a bit of intent about us and we got all the little details.”
It was quite something.
As the points rained down in the second half, it was easy to forget just how much pressure the Warriors were under ahead of this match. While nobody was saying it, everybody knew that a defeat would have been a massive letdown, after a season of remarkable endeavour.
And they were coming off a scratchy month, before the mistake-ridden mauling in Penrith the week before, with some individuals struggling to recapture their mid-year form. They had to live up to the occasion, 15 years on from their last home final, in front of their biggest crowd of the year.
“Going out in straight sets is always a fear,” admitted coach Andrew Webster. “And once you get over that battle you grow this energy. You want to ride it; you realise we actually belong here. We know what it looks like and you’re like, this is okay, we belong here, we’re confident.
“So, this does massive things for [the players’] confidence. [But] we’ll be consistent, with what we do, we’ll work out what we’re going to get better at. [But] it’ll be good for us.”
The usual suspects were outstanding. Shaun Johnson made a triumphant return from injury, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad reeled off 297 running metres and Wayde Egan got his decision making spot on from dummy half, while also racking up 36 tackles.
Harris had probably his best game of a stellar year, with a heavy impact on both sides of the ball and a massive work rate.
But Saturday was also about unsung heroes rising to the occasion. Adam Pompey, who can be polarising, had the best night of his career, with a couple of sideline conversions thrown in for good measure. Fellow centre Rocco Berry showed remarkable poise – in only his 30th NRL game – and was a big factor in blunting Kalyn Ponga, while winger Marcelo Montoya recaptured his spark.
Second-rower Jackson Ford doesn’t get many headlines but underlined his value with non-stop intensity, while Te Maire Martin was rock solid defensively, as he works his way back from injury.
“I just love that this group has found our own identity and, found how we play the game,” said Harris. “[My biggest fear] was getting to the finals and not being yourself, not giving yourself a chance in these games [by] trying to be something you’re not.”
It means Saturday is set up perfectly, as the Warriors take on a Broncos team who have lost just six matches all season
“This is why you play the game, to play in games of this magnitude and against this kind of quality opposition,” said Harris.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge, but I feel like we’ve got the pack to match theirs. It’s going to be a big night.”
Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering Olympics, Fifa World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns. He has also reported on the Warriors and NRL for more than a decade.