Ben Francis: What the NZ Warriors must do to prove they're the real deal

OPINION: The NZ Warriors are finally in the winner circle for the 2020 NRL season after a dominating 18-0 win over the St George Illawarra Dragons. 

The Warriors turned out one of their best performances in recent memory, holding a team scoreless for just the second time in the club's history on Australian soil (66-0 v South Sydney in 2006) while becoming the first team to complete their first 40 sets of tackles, finishing 46/48. 

They looked like a reborn team and one completely different to the one which fronted against the Newcastle Knights and Canberra Raiders before the season was suspended in March. 

One moment which symbolised this was when Ken Maumalo ripped the ball away from Mikaele Ravalawa's hands as he was about to score in the final moments of the game. In the past the Warriors might have let Ravalawa score, but they were determined to keep the Dragons scoreless and the ensuing celebrations were reminiscent of the team that won five straight games in 2018. 

While the Warriors should deservedly celebrate the win, it is crucial they back it up against the Penrith Panthers on Friday. 

Consistency is something the Warriors have lacked for the last decade and under Stephen Keanrey's reign. In 2017, they recorded back-to-back wins just once. 

After their strong start to the 2018 campaign, they were very hit and miss. They'd often back up a good win with a bad loss. In round seven they had arguably their best game of the year against the Dragons, before getting flogged by 40 points to the Melbourne Storm. 

The same thing let them down in 2019, as they recorded back-to-back wins once in rounds nine and 10, also against the Dragons and Panthers.

Remember, it was the Dragons they beat - a team they've historically struggled against, but now won four-straight against the joint-venture club. 

The Dragons are also down on confidence like never before. They've won just four games in the last 12 months (Canterbury Bulldogs, North Queensland Cowboys and Gold Coast Titans, twice).

But on Friday, they'll face a team far superior to the Dragons. The Panthers are one of four unbeaten teams this season, but they'll be without key playmaker Nathan Cleary who was suspended for flouting lockdown rules over Anzac weekend, so the Warriors must take advantage. 

The Warriors have only beaten the Panthers twice in seven attempts with Kearney as coach.

But the Panthers will be warier of the Warriors now, as they were completely written off heading into the match against the Dragons. 

Regardless of who the Warriors beat, they made the point of making their families and fans proud and they certainly did that against the Dragons, which stresses the point they must back it up and prove that the post COVID-19 Warriors are the real deal. 

The Warriors probably deserve the benefit of the doubt for their rough start. After all, they did find out about New Zealand going into lockdown during their season opener against the Knights and then the shock and uncertainty against the Raiders probably didn't help.

After being in lockdown in New Zealand, they returned to Australia where they've been for a month and where they'll remain away from their loved ones until a 'trans-Tasman bubble' is formed and when or if that happens remains unclear. 

On top of being away from their families, their injury toll has been well-documented. They've lost Leeson Ah Mau, Jazz Tevaga and Adam Keighran in the past month, adding to the injury toll which included Bunty Afoa, Jackson Frei and Taane Milne. 

The injuries have left the Warriors light on experienced players, particularly in the forwards, but that didn't matter as rookies like Elisea Katoa - who has been one of the team's best players this season - and Jamayne Taunoa-Brown made the veteran Dragons pack look dreadful, while Jack Murchie - who only signed with the team last week impressed in his debut.

Adam Blair had one of his best games for the Warriors.
Adam Blair had one of his best games for the Warriors. Photo credit: Getty

While the young guns stood up, the same can be said for the likes of experienced forward Adam Blair, who arguably had his best game in a Warriors jersey since joining in 2018 and the same could be said about Kodi Nikorima who joined the side last year. 

Time will tell to see if the players can back it up again. If their performance against the Dragons was built on the desire to make family and fans proud, there is no reason why they can't turn out a similar showing once more. 

With a shorter season, every win is more precious and every loss is damaging. Get a few of those and you will quickly find yourself out of contention for finals football. 

Who knows, maybe the coronavirus pandemic might turn out to be the Warriors' blessing in disguise, but they must prove this performance was not a one-off if they want to make the NRL's top eight. 

Ben Francis is a Newshub digital sports producer.

Ben Francis: What the NZ Warriors must do to prove they're the real deal