They have had little reason to cheer this season, but on Sunday Warriors fans celebrated in unison as the club returned to both Auckland and the NRL winner’s circle.
The 22-2 victory over the Wests Tigers in front of a crowd of 26,009 wasn’t always pretty, but after losing their last seven games while based in Australia, the Warriors and their loyal fanbase didn’t need it to be.
Halfback Shaun Johnson could be seen embracing teammates in excitement as the Warriors entered the field for their first home game in two and a half years, and in the final five minutes took the chance to converse with fans as he lined up his side’s final conversion.
“That last (conversion) from the sideline was cool actually, I walked over and they just all stood up and I gave them a little acknowledgment, they were just going crazy,” Johnson said.
“Then I remembered I had to kick the goal. Luckily I got it and I turned around and they were just going off.
It was something a lot of us will never forget, to feel the love and the energy from the crowd.Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson
The Warriors’ attack showed signs of improvement against Wests Tigers, with Chanel Harris-Tavita impressing after being a late inclusion at fullback for Reece Walsh (COVID), and Johnson having arguably his best game of the year — setting up two tries and managing the kicking game well.
But with his side having leaked an average of 29 points per match in 2022 prior to their return to Auckland, it was the effort on the defensive side which pleased interim coach Stacey Jones the most.
“They worked really hard for each other, the Tigers threw a little bit at us but every time someone had the ball there was pressure on that player,” Jones said.
Warriors: Round 16
“I thought our defensive effort, particularly in that last 10 minutes really picked up.
“We defended really well, we controlled the ruck. But I thought we built the pressure in the first half with our yardage sets.
“We weren’t flash but we got down their end of the footy field.”
In the losing dressing room there were mixed emotions for former Warrior Ken Maumalo, who was playing at Mt Smart Stadium for the first time since signing with the Tigers last year.
The powerhouse winger was among his side’s best performers on the day, carrying the ball 18 times for a game-high 195 metres.
“It felt weird seeing the boys running out of the tunnel. It was a bit weird and I sort of just had to adapt to it really,” Maumalo told NRL.com.
“I was part of the (relocation) sacrifice that happened in Australia for a couple of months there… even though we lost I am happy for them because they deserve that.”
Wests Tigers: Round 16
The match continued a worrying trend of fruitless attack for the Tigers, who now have just three tries in their last three games.
Stand-in captain Jackson Hastings lamented an inability to turn opportunities into points.
“We are creating opportunities, we just need to find a way to finish them,” Hastings said.
“When we actually got down there (the try line) at the back end of the first half we created two opportunities.
“When we make these half-breaks we have got to be fresh enough to actually push through the middle and turn it into four points.”