Sunday News

Warriors ride over Knights to book Broncos battle for place in grand final

- Andrew Voerman

If you were one of those who kept the faith, this was a night for you.

If you sat through the many forgettabl­e seasons over the past decade and kept watching while your boys were stuck in Australia during the Covid-19 pandemic, this was what you had been waiting for.

Read it as often as you like: The Warriors are one of the last four teams standing in the 2023 NRL season and will play the Brisbane Broncos in a preliminar­y final next weekend, looking to make it to their third grand final, after dispatchin­g the Newcastle Knights 40-10 at their Mt Smart home last night.

And it wasn’t just the crowd that got the tingles. Playmaker Shaun Johnson left the field after 73 minutes to a standing ovation, saying after “It’s a moment I’ll never forget. I’m 33, I’ve played a few seasons now – that’s as special as it gets.”

It didn’t take long for the club’s first home finals match since 2008 to become one to remember, as the home team rewarded the 26,083-strong crowd with three tries inside 15 minutes and kept the Knights, on a 10-match winning streak, toothless for almost 20.

The Warriors were tested later in the first half and early in the second spell of the semifinal, but buoyed by their home support, they turned in their best performanc­e in two months to keep their season going another week. Play like this again and they will truly see what the Broncos are made of.

Johnson returned to the Warriors’ starting side after missing their qualifying final loss to the Penrith Panthers last weekend with a calf injury and steered them around the park, showing little sign of the tear he suffered three weeks ago.

The mere sight of Johnson in front of him seemed to spook Knights winger Greg Marzhew into coughing up the ball deep inside his own half during the opening set, and the halfback was heavily involved in getting Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad over in the right corner inside two minutes.

Any anxieties about the Warriors not being able to deliver under the pressure of their home fans were swiftly eased when prop Addin Fonua-Blake slipped through a tackle on the line to put them 10-0 up. At 16-0 inside 14 minutes, thanks to Marcelo Montoya in the corner, they would have been in dreamland.

Johnson slotted back in at halfback as if he hadn’t missed a beat, but he did knock the ball on defending a grubber near the Warriors’ line, one of a series of errors that allowed the Knights to build pressure and eventually get on the board through Marzhew

in the 26th minute, with the score remaining 16-4 at the break.

The Knights struck first in the second half when Montoya couldn’t control an end-of-set bomb, giving the visitors the ball back deep in the Warriors’ half and allowing Dylan Lucas to score, the gap closing to six once Kalyn Ponga added the extra points.

Was that the moment when anxiety would creep back in? Captain Tohu Harris took matters into his own hands, surging up the middle and setting up Dylan Walker to crash over under the posts soon after, which meant the lead was restored to 12.

It became 18 with 20 minutes to play, as a trademark Warriors play to send Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in down the right ended with him offloading it back to Rocco Berry, who was judged to have grounded the ball legally after a review by the bunker overuled the on-field decision.

Watene-Zelezniak then got in on the act on the right edge himself soon after, while Bayley Sironen put the icing on the cake with his side’s seventh try. Whatever

happens in the weeks ahead, the Warriors surely won’t be waiting 15 years for their next home final.

The big moment

Walker’s try in the 47 minute. It came just after the Knights had pulled within one try through Lucas, giving themselves the start they were after in the second half. Harris’ run up the middle to get the attack going was spectacula­r, but the way the Warriors sniffed an opportunit­y and sent Walker thundering over was a sign of their determinat­ion.

Match rating: 8/10

It was everything the home fans were after, but it stopped short of being a thriller, with the Warriors in front from start to finish.


Harris did a mountain of work around his crucial line break in the second half, making 39 tackles and running for 216 metres.

The big picture

The Warriors’ record in home finals matches now stands at three wins out of four, but they’re off to Brisbane to face the Broncos in a preliminar­y final next Saturday. The two-time defending champion Penrith Panthers will host the Melbourne Storm in the other preliminar­y final next Sunday.

undecided on her Ferns’ coaching future. The review and meetings with NNZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie and head of high performanc­e Stephen Hotter could be crucial.

It would be a surprise if NNZ decided they wanted to go in another coaching direction, given Taurua’s reputation and achievemen­ts with the team – 2023 World Cup aside.

Whether Taurua still had the desire and passion to remain involved for the next pinnacle cycle would be key.

Contract length could be another factor. NNZ might want someone in the head coaching role through to the 2027 World Cup, or decide they are happy to offer a two-year deal and then reassess. Taurua has typically done twoyear contracts with her coaching and that would be her preference.

Another complicati­ng issue is the uncertaint­y around the Commonweal­th Games – the Ferns’ next pinnacle event. With Victoria pulling out of staging the 2026 edition, the Games could be pushed back a year until 2027 to find an alternativ­e host city.

“These are the things I’ve got to be able to weigh up – whether I’m the right person or not – and only time will tell as we go through the next couple of months and the review process.

“In saying that, I’m really positive about where things are at and looking forward to getting back out on court and playing at home [against England next week] – that’s always a bonus.”

Taurua has enjoyed a golden run as Ferns coach, turning around the side after their forgettabl­e fourth-place finish at the 2018 Commonweal­th Games. Fifteen months later, they morphed into world champions in July 2019.

Taurua also led the Ferns to a first Constellat­ion Cup series win over Australia

in nine years in March 2021. But New Zealand’s worst World Cup finish in history has seen Taurua’s position questioned on talkback radio, social media, and news comments sections.

Losing three games in a row was a rare feeling for Taurua, who has tasted success virtually everywhere she has coached. She lost four straight games to open the 2012 trans-Tasman competitio­n with the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic. The Magic then rattled off 12 straight wins, beating the Melbourne Vixens in the final to become the first and only Kiwi side to capture the title. “Once again, it comes with the territory. We’re accountabl­e for what happens out on court,” Taurua said of questions about whether she was still the right person to guide the Ferns.

“As I’ve said before,

I’ll always do what’s right for the game. I’m a caretaker for the job, or a guardian of the job, and whatever will be right for the game I’m open to that.”

Despite their fourth-place finish, the Silver Ferns are well-placed ahead of the next four-year cycle. Unlike England and Jamaica who had ageing squads, the Ferns had a young core, who will be at their peak come 2027.

Injured shooter Grace Nweke, who is still just 21, and standout midcourter Kate Heffernan, 23, will be important pillars for the Ferns over the next four years. The bulk of the 2023 World

Cup squad should still be around in 2027, with Ameliarann­e Ekenasio,

Gina Crampton, Jane Watson and Te Paea Selby-Rickit unlikely for the next edition.

Taurua was relaxed with whatever the future held and was excited to return to the sideline on

Sunday against England. She was eager to return to her happy place, doing what she loved, and slowly ease the painful memories of the World Cup.

While her contract ends in late November, Taurua said there didn’t need to be any rush around her coaching future.

“We don’t have to be hasty in the decision and we need to make sure we get the right decision for everybody – the Silver Ferns and the organisati­on (NNZ).

“I respect that and respect the process we’ll go through and the first stage of that would be the review. Whilst that is happening, I’m looking forward to getting on court and co0aching like I usually do and see what we can do to be better.”

“Those questions that have been asked are the questions I’m asking of myself as well. Dame Noeline Taurua

 ?? RICKY WILSON / STUFF ?? Warriors centre Rocco Berry celebrates scoring the try that gave his side a decisive lead over the Knights in their NRL semifinal.
RICKY WILSON / STUFF Warriors centre Rocco Berry celebrates scoring the try that gave his side a decisive lead over the Knights in their NRL semifinal.
 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Whether Dame Noeline Taurua returns as the Silver Ferns coach in 2024 is an intriguing storyline.
GETTY IMAGES Whether Dame Noeline Taurua returns as the Silver Ferns coach in 2024 is an intriguing storyline.

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