The Warriors have made significant changes to their coaching staff, including the acquisition of former Newcastle head coach Nathan Brown in a specialist role.
This Sunday, competition heavyweights the Sydney Roosters do battle with the Warriors in a game which will undoubtedly prove crucial at season’s end.
The tricolours have cemented their place in the top four, sitting at second place, but will be looking to close the gap between themselves and frontrunners Melbourne.
Meanwhile, their rivals from across the ditch currently sit two points adrift of the top eight and are looking to produce the same kind of form which saw them upset Manly last weekend.
Since the Warriors’ inception in 1995, these two clubs have battled in a number of high-profile clashes, most notably the 2002 grand final (won 30-8 by the Roosters), as well as a memorable finals encounter in 2008 at Mt Smart Stadium.
However, it was a clash from Round 21 2007, played in an environment which did not garner as much attention nor pressure as the two aforementioned matches, that will go down as one of the most exciting games in premiership history.
Despite the reverence with which it can be reflected upon now (through lenses which remain free of any rose-coloured tint, mind you), it wasn’t exactly a must-see match at the time. Nonetheless, it still received tremendous plaudits in the immediate aftermath, with Immortal Bob Fulton and Roosters boss Nick Politis calling it one of the greatest games of the modern era.
In fact, following the demolition of Allianz Stadium last year, it was named by the Sydney Roosters’ official website as one of the 30 greatest moments to have taken place at the ground during the club’s tenancy.
‘Forgotten’ classic, indeed.
Heading into the game, played out on a beautiful sunny afternoon in Sydney, the Roosters’ circumstances were in stark contrast to their current status as defending premiers and competition heavyweights.
With just six wins under their belts, as well as a new caretaker coach in Brad Fittler (who had retired just three years earlier), the Bondi boys were merely making up the numbers. Nonetheless, as evidenced by their upset of ladder leaders the Storm (hey, some things never change), they were determined to go out on a positive note.
The Warriors, meanwhile, were riding high following a campaign which had produced more hope and promise on the field than their previous two seasons combined.
Having won six of their past seven games, the New Zealand side had plenty of belief that they would be heading home with the two competition points, and perhaps a noticeable jump in their points differential.
In an ironic twist, both teams were coached by two players who had competed for their respective outfits in the 2002 grand final – Fittler and Ivan Cleary, who played his final NRL game in the losing Warriors outfit.
While most season-defining games and memorable encounters take place between two teams in similar positions at the higher end of the table, this match featured two sides from almost opposite ends of the spectrum. Funnily enough, 12 years later, the roles have almost been directly reversed, with the Warriors sitting in the same position as the Roosters leading into that 2007 clash.
An omen? No, probably not.
An impressive (particularly for a team coming in at 11th place) home crowd of 15,194 showed up and were no doubt ecstatic at their team’s start, with the Roosters racing out to a 16-0 lead after just 22 minutes.
This is often a key element in classic sporting encounters – the ‘comeback’.
The Warriors responded with three converted tries, the first of which came at the end of a 50-metre break by fullback Wade McKinnon, who had burst onto a brilliant offload by teammate Epalahame Lauaki. It was one of the many displays of sublime skill in the match, another important element in making the game as memorable as it was.
After trailing 18-16 at the break, the home side leveled the scores soon after the festivities resumed in the second half through a Craig Fitzgibbon penalty goal.
The Kiwis, however, regained the advantage when Lauaki scored his second try of the afternoon, before hulking winger Manu Vatuvai followed up with a try of his own to take the Warriors out to a 30-18 lead.
A 12-point buffer with ten or so minutes to go is usually enough to feel cautiously safe – even more so when the team holding the lead is in the top four, facing a side which had won only six games thus far in the season. But this wasn’t a normal NRL game.
Simon Mannering decided that he wanted to give coach Cleary a heart attack, or something close to it, when he was sin-binned for an illegal strip in the 68th minute. In Mannering’s defence, it was a highly questionable call.
Less than a minute later, Craig Wing bolted out of dummy-half, did an Irish jig and strolled over untouched.
Seven minutes later, with Mannering still in the sin-bin, the Roosters leveled the scores at 30-30 following an off-the-cuff piece of play which resulted in centre Joel Monaghan tearing through some soft defence to score his third try of the day.
I’m sure Braith Anasta kicked a litany of field goals through his illustrious career, but the only two I remember are almost identical, which is notable if only for the fact that they’re also two of the most extraordinary field goals you’ll ever see.
Both times he appears off-balance, unprepared and almost 40 metres away, yet he kicks the ball like it owes him money, stumbles a little bit in the aftermath, and watches it sail through the posts.
While his other effort, in 2010 against the Wests Tigers, was perhaps more impressive – and memorable – his one-pointer in the 77th minute of this game is not far behind.
From 30-18 down to 31-30, the Roosters looked to have sealed an unforgettable victory.
But a lot can happen in two minutes, as the away side proved when Michael Witt kicked a field goal to level the scores.
The young five-eighth then turned around and walked back past the halfway with a completely straight face, almost vacant of any celebratory expression. It was as if he had been teasing the home fans all along, and had always intended to kick a field goal from 30 metres out on the last tackle with 16 seconds remaining.
While that was the last point-scoring play of the game – which ended a 31-all draw – the final ten minutes of the game, played in golden point, were a testament to everything great about rugby league.
The two full-time sirens were punctuated by enthralling action, the quality of which extends beyond most clichés I could put to paper, so I shall surmise it thusly: it was some bloody good footy. A team fighting for pride, another for legitimacy – sometimes in rugby league that’s all you need.