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ANALYSIS: Johnson and Egan power Warriors into Prelim - but Newcastle did everything to help them out

16th September, 2023
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16th September, 2023
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The NRL’s biggest vibes train rolls on, only gathering momentum. Celebration mode kicked in well before the close.

After 15 minutes, it was as if a whole nation could not believe their luck: the Warriors raced into a 14-0 lead and the bloke in front of the coaches’ box was already drinking from his shoe.

By the end, they had Shaun Johnson on ice, a 40-10 scoreline in their favour and a Mexican wave going around a raucous Mt Smart Stadium.

The Warriors haven’t played a home final since 2008 and haven’t played a preliminary final since 2011. Part one was a victory in itself, and now they get a crack at the Broncos at Suncorp next Saturday night. 

All the chat in the week had surrounded Johnson’s calf. They needn’t have worried. The halfback, resurrected under Andrew Webster, was at his mercurial best here, laying on two tries and dictating proceedings before taking an early mark.

Wayde Egan was just as good, probing constantly out of dummy half and working in concert with his halfback before a knock forced him off late on. He should be fine to suit up next week. His team will need him.

“It’s special,” said the coach. “Winning any finals game is special, but winning it in your backyard with fans like that and a crowd like that and that amazing atmosphere, it’s huge.

“I think it’s even better the way that we did it. We learned from last week. We played our style and got the game we wanted to get on.

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“The boys will get huge amounts of confidence off the back of doing it the way we wanted to do it.”

Newcastle have only themselves to blame. As good as the Wahs were, they were gifted so much field position, especially early on.

Adam O’Brien has presided over a revival of rugby league fortunes in the Hunter that is only topped by that in Aotearoa, but he could not be pleased with how his season has ended.

Kalyn Ponga never got a sniff and the usually secure wing duo of Greg Marzhew and Dom Young struggled with errors. The Knights made ten errors and the back three were responsible for seven of them.

“It’s funny – we didn’t deserve to end like that, but we deserve to end like that,” said O’Brien.

“The way we started the game applied way too much pressure to ourselves with no discipline.

“It’s hard at the moment because we’ve set high standards and for us to just be OK with that performance, given what we’ve done for the last 11 weeks, wouldn’t mean progress for the club at all.

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“I’m glad that it’s hurting all of us. But, in time, we can look back and we’ve done a pretty good job.”

It wasn’t just the performance. Tyson Frizell and Phoenix Crossland both played on hurt, with a calf problem and an MCL issue respectively, while Kurt Mann’s final appearance in a Knights jersey was ended by a head knock. They have all deserved a rest.

The Warriors march on to Brisbane. Webster revealed that they had been in doubt themselves until yesterday on Johnson’s fitness, and can now add Egan (head knock), Marata Niukore (knee) and Josh Curran (finger) to the list.

The Johnson and Egan show

Warriors football is very highly defined at this stage, with two key elements to the attack: there’s the sweep pattern, largely to the left, and the power through the centre. We got both in the opening stages.

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Naturally, Johnson and Egan were right at the heart of it all. It’s pretty much always them. 

The hooker is under-rated in his ability to condense the line: when a hooker takes a few steps and passes, it can be a handbrake on the attack – hello, Damien Cook – but Egan has a knack of straightening up, more like what a ball-playing lock would do, with an offensive trigger for the rest of the edge from there.

Johnson was touching the ball multiple times per set, swinging both sides of the field and, crucially, digging as deep as possible in the line. 

When Egan plays straight and Johnson plays deep, it all clicks. Nicoll-Klokstad made it work on one side and Marcelo Montoya was the beneficiary on the other.

The patterns are designed to manipulate the width of the line: if the defence goes wide, then the Warriors forwards are smart enough to go down main street, as Addin Fonua-Blake did in the first half and Dylan Walker did in the second – and if they don’t, then the path to the corner is set.

Much as Johnson is the obvious recipient of the praise, the role of Egan in playing vertically is equally as important, as is Tohu Harris’ ball work. Those two pin the tacklers tight, Johnson finds the gaps. It’s a formula that has delivered the Warriors to a Prelim.

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Knights never given themselves a chance

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was over before the Knights completed a set.

Greg Marzhew spilled the ball on their first set and promptly didn’t get it back for five minutes, in which time the Warriors had scored twice. 

They had added a third before Ponga finally got to the kick, in the 15th minute.

Newcastle must have known the Warriors’ plan. By and large, they play quite conservatively until in good ball, then throw all their attack all of the time, with very few wasted plays. 

The Warriors tend not to score many from deep, but are ruthless from close in. Yardage errors are bad at the best of times, but against this opponent, they were fatal.

Ball security, then, should have been high up the agenda. You can’t hand field position to Warriors and expect to do well, and Newcastle invited them right in.

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As tactical analysis goes, that’s the long and short of it. Game state is a massive factor in rugby league, especially in finals, from the quarter hour mark onwards, this was a game defined by the fact that the Warriors were three tries ahead.

Newcastle did make a fist of it, but will spend the summer wondering what might have been possible if they hadn’t gifted the easiest of field position to their opponents early on.

The manipulation of where the game was played remained and issue throughout. With a deficit to overcome, the Knights needed to build pressure and stay in the other end, but their kicking was sub-par for long parts of the game.

Jackson Hastings averages just under 300m via kicking across the season, with Gamble taking more and more in recent weeks, but today, he was below his best and Clune barely put boot to ball despite wearing the 7 on his back. 

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