Just when you thought the days of narrowly losing out to a fitter, stronger and slicker attacking team in a Red V were well behind us…
And to top it off, they have Ian fucking Millward in their coaching ranks!
In 2012, we beat the now mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs at their spiritual home of Redfern Oval in wearing a one-off special edition shirt in a meaningless friendly. Nobody outside Warrington seemed to mention it, yet after losing at home to a St George Illawara Dragons team boasting a halfback combination of Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop, the general consensus from supporters of other clubs who seem to be obsessed with us is that we have somehow disgraced the Super League. No doubt had we won, the cry would’ve been “it was only a friendly”. Odd world we live in.
Anyway, fuck em. The majority of the 13,000+ crowd in the HJ on Friday were whipped up to a World Club frenzy. The prospect of seeing the likes of Marshall and man of the match Josh Dugan live and in the flesh inspired a sense of occasion and atmosphere to rival the NZ-Samoa world cup clash.
And it was a really encapsulating match. It had literally everything; quality attacking flair, bone crunching defence and a bit of biff to top it off.
For all the fervour and excitement in the build up to the game, we got off to a dreadful start, spilling the ball in the first set of six.
Within minutes, the Steelers were over for the opening try with Welsh international Tyson Frizell hitting a flat ball and crashing over from short range.
It was an early indication of the tourists’ attacking flair. They shipped the ball out wide with speed and accuracy all night; every runner an option for their half backs (who are Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop, by the way!), who invariably picked the right pass every time.
We went into the game with the news that Stefan Racthford hadn’t recovered in time to feature and, as such, Gary Wheeler started at Centre with Joel Monas on the wing and Kevin Penny started at full back!
Such disruption to the spine of the team was bound to affect our expansiveness in attack, but in fairness, we shifted the ball well at times and the ever-enthusiastic Penny enjoyed the free reign to pop up anywhere in the line that full back offers.
It would have been easy to slump and feel sorry for ourselves, but we almost replied on 10 minutes when Joel Monaghan collected Myler’s kick to the corner only to be held up over the line by some spectacular defending from Nabuli, who would go on to have a busy night.
We levelled the scores when Gareth O’Brien dropped his shoulder and exploited the gap he created in the SGI defensive line to race through and fool Josh Dugan by dummying inside to Myler and touching down for a magical try.
It could be a massive year for O’Brien this season and that piece of individual brilliance will go a long way to staking a claim for a consistent starting half back role regardless of who else is fit and available.
Parity didn’t last long, though, and the difference in intensity levels between the sides began to tell when Joel Thompson, a second row forward, beat Joel Monaghan, a winger, to a perfectly weighted Widdop grubber to touch down. Widdop’s perfect night with the boot continued when he nudged over the conversion from just inside the touch line.
The Steelers took control of the game for a spell after that score and the atmosphere went flat momentarily. Struggling to get beyond half-way, Warrington decided to spread the ball wide and Kevin Penny received Myler’s pass with a three-on-one overlap to attack, but before the former DHL driver could deliver the killer pass, Eto Nabuli almost killed him via decapitation.
To his credit, Kev bounced straight back up, albeit seeking some sort of physical retribution, though you feel had he stayed down and milked it, Nabuli could have been in trouble.
Gareth Widdop decided to intervene and manhandle Penny before he could square up to the Dragons winger (probably doing him a favour), but the incident and the ensuing melee lit the blue torch paper again.
It was the best thing that could have happened to us; the crowd lifted again and the players seemed to find an extra spring in their step. From the resulting set after the penalty, Atkins went over out wide and the roof nearly blew off the sold out South Stand.
That was about as good as it got for us, though. A penalty goal in the second half after Benji Marshall’s imitation of Nabuli floored Gaz O’Brien levelled the scores with 20 minutes left.
Josh Dugan sealed the victory for the visitors when he touched down Marshall’s inch perfect reverse kick, another touch of class that highlighted the fine margins between the sides that was the difference on the night.
It was a brave effort from Wire, but ultimately some of the problems from last season reared their head against a team attuned to a vastly more consistent level of intensity. The Dragons controlled the pace of the game, and again, none of our forwards took it upon themselves to give any of their players a whack for taking liberties against some of our smaller players. Had Ratchford been playing at full back, perhaps the 6-7-1 combination would have been more fluid and we would have taken another chance when the ball was shifted wide.
If the World Club Challenge is to be an extended competition in future, I for one welcome more nights like Friday. The intensity and ferociousness in the collision and the skill levels on display were of the highest standard and the sense of occasion was simply magical.
We moved to the HJ over a decade ago with the intention of having a stadium – and a club – capable of hosting games of this magnitude and we delivered on Friday. Plenty more, please.