As the final whistle sounded to bring a close to the Warriors’ semifinal win over the Newcastle Knights, the Mt Smart faithful were left with an experience they have not had since 2008.
For the first time in well over a decade, they left the Warriors’ final home game of the season with the same outlook as when they arrived for the first – the belief that this is their year.
But unlike in those early moments of the campaign, the 26,083 in attendance on Saturday night left with a whole lot more to back up that optimism.
After a near two-month period in which the Warriors had been unable to produce their best form, they bounced back in a big way to topple the Knights in what might have been their most impressive outing of the season.
“We learnt from last week. We played our style,” Warriors head coach Andrew Webster said.
“The boys got huge amounts of confidence off the back of doing things the way we wanted to do them.”
The Warriors were emphatic in what turned into a demolition job against the Knights – a team on a 10-game winning streak and averaging 34 points per game in that span. A quick glance at the 40-10 scoreline was a fair reflection of the hosts’ performance.
As Newcastle head coach Adam O’Brien summarised after the game: “We didn’t deserve to end like that, but we deserved to end like that”, noting his side’s poor start.
Ironically, starts have been a key theme of the Warriors’ campaign. Early in the year, the Warriors faced plenty of questions regarding their slow starts to games – getting to the point where first-year head coach Webster said in a press conference that he was not going to talk about starts anymore.
Against the Knights on Saturday night, the Warriors scored three tries within the opening 13 minutes – holding the Knights to just two possessions in that stretch.
When the Knights inevitably found their feet on attack, they looked to exploit what had been a concern in the Warriors’ defence in recent weeks on the left edge. It was where the competition’s leading try scorer Dominic Young was lurking, but the athletic Englishman could not get involved as the defence smothered every attack out there.
The Knights had opportunities in good field position in the first half but only went through once; the Warriors’ defence standing strong regardless of where they were being attacked. When the Knights scored just minutes after the restart to close the gap to six points, the Warriors remained composed.
The hosts went straight back to work and took over the game from there, building pressure through the middle and tightening the screws on a tiring Newcastle defence late in the game.
“In big moments and big games, you just want the boys to be themselves and remember what that meant,” Webster added of the performance. “We won 16 games this season, we deserved a top-four finish, we deserved a home semifinal.
“My biggest fear was that we weren’t going to be ourselves, that we were going to try and make something up or think that we had to do something different tonight.
“I thought the calm in the group, particularly in the back end of the week, was amazing. On a big stage like that, being at home with a crowd like that who helps, you can sometimes add pressure because you feel like you have to repay everyone. But I thought the boys were so calm and so smart under pressure.”
Now, they turn their attention to the Brisbane Broncos, a team they narrowly lost to in their sole meeting of the regular season, at Suncorp Stadium next Saturday night.
A side who had their worst season on record last year are now just one win away from equalling their best – and two wins away from NRL glory.