The Warriors came up short in their quest for the $100,000 prize in the NRL pre-season challenge, falling 24-6 to the Melbourne Storm in Christchurch.
The Warriors could have taken the top spot if they won Sunday and took home all three bonus points, but they missed all four goals as the Storm came home strong after a shaky start.
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Melbourne dominated possession in the first half, with 58 per cent of the ball and 17 tackles in the 20-metre zone for the Warriors compared to just five for the hosts.
But Craig Bellamy would not have been impressed with Melbourne’s discipline, as the Storm completed 67 per cent of their sets and conceded five penalties.
The Warriors (55 completion rate) were even worse, but defended valiantly on their line, with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak’s long-range attempt the only points of the first half.
After a relatively quiet first 25 minutes, save for a number of errors, a strong run by Watene-Zelezniak ended up producing the first points of the game.
It was relatively simple, as the Warriors winger took the ball out of the scrum inside his own half, breaking through Melbourne’s weak defense to escape and score.
“Some bad defense,” Parker said in the comment.
“Craig Bellamy, we’ve mentioned it before in and around the experience loss down the middle… that there’s a defensive lapse that’s a systematic error. He caught Munster napping.”
The Storm seemed to have finally capitalized on their dominant position on the pitch in the 36th minute when Munster dropped a bombshell and scored.
But replays would later show Young Tonumaipea hampering the Warriors defence, with Melbourne’s cross penalized.
The Storm were unbelievably slow, but they came back to life in the second half thanks to two handy off-season purchases.
First it was a former warrior, Eliesa Katoa, who finished a brilliant piece of work involving key backbone members Harry Grant and Cameron Munster.
Grant shot from dead half for an early line break to get Storm going before linking up with Munster, who played short to put Katoa through a massive hole.
Then Will Warbrick, a former New Zealand rugby sevens representative, swept down the line to score Melbourne’s second of the game.
Xavier Coates then pounced on the ball when Taine Tuaupiki failed to defuse a kick in the 62nd minute, and Joe Chan seemingly stormed in soon after to score.
However, replays would show Warriors players holding it.
However, the Warriors were unable to stop Nelson Asofa-Solomona when the Storm’s first rower drifted for the team’s third down of the game in the 71st minute.
A special diving effort from Coates then iced out the win as Melbourne finished well on top, winning 24-6.
Melbourne take on Parramatta in the first round of the season proper as the Warriors battle the Knights.
Read on for three big hits from Sunday’s game.
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‘OUT OF SCHOOL’ OPENING RAISES KEY STORM QUESTION MARK
The Storm came home strong in the second half, but an “awkward” start had Corey Parker warning that Craig Bellamy’s side might take a while to make up for their lack of experience up front.
With the Bromwich brothers and Felise Kaufusi out the door, Melbourne are without key members of their front group who have laid the foundation for the likes of Cameron Munster and Harry Grant to thrive.
The addition of Tariq Sims will help, but a series of first-half errors left Parker wondering if the leadership vacuum could leave Melbourne exposed early in the regular season.
“We are so used to the Melbourne Storm playing at such high intensity and in such a professional manner,” Parker said in a commentary to Fox League.
“It just hasn’t been the Melbourne Storm in the last 30 minutes. We continue to insist on the experience that they have lost, well, we have a very good indication this afternoon in exactly that area.
“The connectivity between Harry Grant, Hughes and Munster certainly hasn’t been there. They look totally out of place from an attacking point of view.”
When the Storm finally got him together, as they did when Grant and Munster combined to send out Katoa, Parker pointed towards the front group starting to get going unlike in the first half.
“The group of forwards and the experience that’s obviously not going to be there, it’s going to take some time,” he said.
“They’re a team that like to break through defensive lines by tying down defenders and on the back of that they get some momentum and get guys like Grant and Munster across the gain line and exploit that. In the first half they just didn’t get the points we usually see.”
Those points started to come in the second half, although there is still much room for improvement in Bellamy’s men ahead of the season opener against Parramatta.
CONVERT TO RUGBY, BUY ‘FANTASTIC’ PUT ON A SHOW
If there was one bright, clear light for Melbourne in a mistake-riddled performance, it was the appearance of two key off-season additions: Katoa and Warbrick.
Katoa haunted his previous team, falling back in support to finish off a well-worked play involving Grant and Munster, finishing the game with 103 metres, two tackle takedowns and a line break.
With Kenny Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi now on the Dolphins and Tariq Sims recovering from a calf injury, Katoa has a real chance to cement a spot in the Bellamy 17 first pick.
And the former Guerrero didn’t hurt his hopes on Sunday.
“He’s a great buy for me in the offseason, Eli Katoa,” Parker said in a commentary.
“He has so much future around him. An outside-in line on Dylan Walker. He has a bright future: big, athletic, fast, skilled”.
As for Warbrick, the rugby convert is still eyeing his NRL debut after a code switch and continues to impress after another dominating display in Melbourne.
Warbrick had won an Olympic silver medal with the All Blacks sevens team just 18 months ago, but is now pursuing an NRL dream and made quite an impression on Sunday.
The 24-year-old had 15 carries of 162 meters to go along with seven tackles, two line breaks and a standout try as he plowed past several Warriors defenders to score.
“A name to watch out for in 2023,” said Matt Russell.
“Big and powerful, and it cuts through the defense. In fact, he started playing Australian rules football in New Zealand, won silver in the Tokyo Olympic Rugby Sevens and is now playing league and playing well for the Melbourne Storm.
“A couple made fun of him and he didn’t make any impression.”
“He’s been fantastic in the first two games,” Parker added.
“He’s a big guy, standing close to the two meter mark, weighing over 105kg, big and athletic, which is what you often see in the NRL at the moment.”
It followed a solid performance against the Roosters where Warbrick scored another try and added 92 metres, two tackle takedowns and a line break.
A BRIGHT LIGHT ON EARLY ‘GOOD SIGNS’ FOR WARRIORS
It all started promisingly for the Warriors, who fell apart late in the second half as the team’s younger and inexperienced players had a chance to impress.
But if there was one positive to take away from the final strike of Sunday’s pre-season, it was the goal-line defense that saw Melbourne scoreless in the first half.
The Warriors maintained a disciplined line speed that frustrated the Storm with errors and showed their commitment to fighting on their own line.
“Cooper said before the game that they needed to show some muscle on defense and they did,” Michael Ennis said on Fox League coverage.
“The Melbourne Storm had three sets inside their 20 and denied them on all three occasions.”
Two instances, one involving former Warrior Katoa and another involving Trent Loiero, showed just how determined the Warriors were early to hold off the Storm.
“Really good signs from the Warriors and more importantly from Shaun Johnson just to take on Loiero who is trying too hard to release the ball,” Parker said in a commentary when Johnson forced an error.
“Very good defense again,” he added later when four Warriors defenders, including new recruit Marata Niukore, held off Katoa.