It was a thunderous snap that, figuratively speaking, could be heard around Eden Park by 38412 adoring fans.
A snap that, in a moment’s mayhem, those same adoring fans will be hoping will not turn out to be a metaphor for the New Zealand Warriors 2011 NRL season as superstar winger Manu Vatuvei lay helpless on his left wing having just snapped a medial ligament in his right knee.
Certainly, one could have been forgiven for thinking it had some ulterior meaning as the home side went down to the Parramatta Eels, 24-18.
Can’t take a break, can the big fella. Playing for the Kiwi’s in their first match of the international series at the end of 2010, Vatuvei broke his arm early on in the first match of the tournament. Now, fate was having its way with the Warriors talisman again. And only fourteen minutes into proceedings, too.
Eerie symmetry, it was for the man mountain Vatuvei. Those long torturous summer months of hard slog, toiling away running, cycling, pounding his way through hill sprints and the like, all done in the hope of a better than ever season, brought to a temporary halt as one bone crunching tackle from a venomous foe put paid to the endeavours of a trimmed down Vatuvei.
The life of a professional footballer- it can be a soul destroying existence.
If the plight of the popular Vatuvei wasn’t bad enough for the home side, it had only added to the torment as Parramatta, in the 6th minute, had already enjoyed a profitable foray into the Warrior’s territory. No thanks to one half of the Eels halves pairing in Jeff Robson. Dreamers, schemers, plotters, that's what halves are. Thinkers, talkers, doers, the lot of them, they are. Not that the opposing sides forwards appreciate their presence. In their eyes, they are nothing but treacherous little leaches that do their utmost to suck the animation out of their defensive line. To them Robson was no different as he spied an opportunity from two metres out, and without a moment’s hesitation, stepped off his right foot and slinked his way through some flimsy defence to dot down.
So, not a good start for the Warriors, in more ways than one.
While Parramatta were steady and workmanlike, making good metres up the middle of the ruck, all the while providing a commendable showing of solid defence when the Warriors had the steeden, the same couldn’t be said of the locals.
Right from the off, the Warriors exuded an unpleasant aroma of error infested play that seeped steadily from their footballing pores. For, they carried the ass for much of the first half. A knock-on here, a misdirected pass there. Their night, it wasn’t. It’s not as if they weren’t trying. Indeed, they tried mightily. Simply, the execution was not of the required level.
This they found out in the 31st minute, when Robson’s partner in crime, Daniel Mortimer, put up a bomb with pin point accuracy into the Warriors in-goal area. That region can be an interesting depository for a meeting place as an eclectic mix of personalities litter it space. From the defensive players, with the chip on their shoulder, that cannot tolerate the notion that anyone would dare to attempt an invasion into what they believe should be their own private inner sanctum, to the brazen attackers, jealous of what untold riches may lay in store for them. If only they could penetrate the steely defences of their more conservatively minded enemy.
Well, penetrate they did as Jarrod Hayne managed to breach the Warriors security and regather Mortimer’s bomb to touch down and extend the Eels lead to 14-0.
New Parramatta coach, Stephen Kearney, must have thought this coaching caper was mere child’s play. Not that hard, really. What was everyone going on about? Anyone can do this, surely. Warriors coach, Ivan Cleary, on the other hand, must have been sorely tempted to do his best impersonation of 16th century namesake, Ivan the Terrible, and replace some players, permantly. After thirty-one minutes they were still dropping high balls, throwing wayward passes, dropping ball in the tackle. Oh, how sorely the coach’s patience must have been tested.
Luckily for the playing personnel, though, in the 36th minute, Jerome Ropati scored in the left corner. With James Maloney’s conversion and the margin reduced to eight points, all was not lost. The coach’s wrath had been avoided. At least, temporarily, it was.
They could go into the break with the knowledge that, having played as far from their potential as they possibly could, they were only a converted try to the south of their foe.
A comeback would not be a impossibility for a side with such a vast expanse of talent at their disposal.
Then again, maybe that was being a touch on the hopeful side, as in the 45th minute, a grateful Luke Burt scooped up the loose ball from a mistake by rookie winger Glen Fisiiahi, to dive over in the left corner. To add salt to the wound of the young debutant, Burt kicked a superb sideline conversion to extend the score out to 20-6.
Not content to limit his input into proceedings to ten points, the veteran winger decided that the 57th minute would be a mighty fine time to score his 109th career try. Once again, it was in the left corner. Unlike his previous effort, he could not convert for an extra two points.
A 24-6 lead was not to be sneezed at though. Parramatta could smell an unlikely victory. No one had expected them to beat the Warriors, an outfit many are picking to be contenders come the first weekend of October. The Eels had come with the intention of doing the basics correctly. You know, that boring stuff that, while not fancy, wins games. Like making the hard yards up the middle, being aggressive in defence, retaining possession.
And they were being helped by a Warriors outfit that was not responding well to the pressure of the situation. At one stage Lance Hohaia could be seen to throw the ball away in disgust when refereeing decisions did not go his teams way.
While the Warriors may have come with good intentions, they had been mentally flat for sixty-five minutes. Perhaps they had been over-confident. If so, now was the time to forgo complacency, bite the bullet and admit to themselves, that for a good majority of the match they had been outplayed by a superior opponent. Give credit where credit was due, but, at the same time, realise they could, with the correct application, fight their way back into the encounter.
All they needed was a chance. And Parramatta handed them that opening in the 66th minute when they knocked-on in their own red zone. From the ensuing play, the Warriors spread the ball wide to their left side attack, whereupon Hohaia threw a wonderful little cut-out pass to Ropati, who was filling in for the injured Vatuvei on the left wing, to score within inches of the sideline. With Maloney’s conversion, they were back in the hunt at 24-12.
The tide was turning. For much of the match, Parramatta had had a monopoly on territory and possession. Admittedly, the Warriors, in part, were to blame for that.
The winds of fortune, though, were a changing. Blowing up a pretty strong gale, they were.
It was now the home side that was making ground up the middle of the park with consummate ease. Shaun Berrigan, one of the Warriors big off-season buys, was in thick of it. If he wasn’t darting out of dummy half, he would be out wide trying desperately to orchestrate an attacking raid down one of the wings.
Eventually, the extra possession they had come in to started to pay dividends. They were now continuously mounting raids in their adversary’s twenty metre zone. It had to pay, soon. And it did in the 72nd minute when Maloney put up a bomb on the 5th tackle. The Eels failed to control it, thus leaving a gleeful Lewis Brown to snatch the ball and quick as a flash, dot down for a crucial four pointer.
With the gap back to six points, the Warriors surged ahead in search of an equaliser and the chance to send the game into extra time.
Alas, it was not to be.
They had left their run too late. And, in all honesty, it would have been a travesty if the Warriors had managed a win here. Parramatta were worthy winners. They had dominated for much of the match. Deviate from what was a simple but effective game plan, they did not. It will win them plenty more matches this season. Having said that, come September, they will be on the edge of the eight. Nothing more. 2011 will not be their year.
It could be for the Warriors, though. That is, if they curb their tendency for under estimating the opposition every so often.
But maybe a poor performance tonight was what they needed to get their minds fully concentrating on the job ahead.