Benji Marshall’s heir apparent stole his thunder to fire the Warriors to a 24-14 NRL comeback win over Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night.
Playing his last game at the Tigers’ spiritual home after requesting an early release from the club at season’s end, Marshall was unable to match the brilliance of his young New Zealand Test teammate Shaun Johnson.
Johnson delivered a second-half masterclass to haul the Warriors back from an eight-point deficit and all but extinguish the Tigers’ flickering finals hopes.
Dubbed the “next Benji Marshall”, Johnson kept the Warriors in touch at 14-6 down at the break with his side’s only first-half four-pointer before igniting the revival with a 95-metre runaway try in the 56th minute.
The 22-year-old then laid on the match-winner for skipper Simon Mannering with a well-placed kick ahead after shredding the Tigers’ defence.
Mannering’s try came just six minutes after he was denied one off another Johnson grubber when the two video referees ruled the Warriors captain had knocked on trying to ground the ball.
Seemingly headed to rugby union after being unable to reach an agreement with the Tigers, Marshall was teary-eyed at kick-off after receiving a rousing reception from the loyal crowd.
In the sixth minute he rifled a beautiful left-to-right cut-out pass for Ayshford to put winger David Nofoaluma for the first try of the night.
Marshall’s sideline conversion attempt struck the upright but the Tigers were up and running with a 4-0 lead.
The hosts doubled their advantage in the 13th minute when Chris Lawrence ran off five-eighth Curtis Sironen and bounced out of a tackle to cross for the Tigers’ second four-pointer.
Marshall again missed with his conversion attempt and the Tigers’ lead was cut two two when Johnson crossed for the first of his tryscoring double in the 34th minute and added the extras.
A spectacular 65-metre solo try to exciting young winger Tim Simona on the stroke of halftime, converted by Marshall from in front of the sticks, restored the Tigers’ eight-pointer buffer.
Winning coach Matt Elliott praised Johnson and hooker Nathan Friend for holding the Warriors together.
“Shaun’s second-half performance, in particular, was really pivotal,” he said.
“Shaun obviously came up with some pretty striking plays and I’m over the moon for him.
“He’s starting to learn that the more responsibility he takes on, the better he plays.”
Tigers veteran Liam Fulton said it had been a tough week for Marshall but refused to blame his impending departure as any excuse for the loss.
“He probably didn’t know how the crowd were going to react to him,” Fulton said.
“He was probably pretty emotional during the week, but we got on with the job and that probably wasn’t the reason we lost.
“I thought he went alright.”
Fulton said the Tigers were clinging to the mathematical hope of still making the playoffs.
“I know it’s getting harder, but we’re still positive,” he said.
“We’re still putting in each week and we still think we’re a chance.”