NRL: NZ Warriors fall to season-opening defeat against Cronulla Sharks at soldout Go Media Stadium

NZ Warriors have let an early two-try advantage slip through their fingers, as they slumped to a 16-12 defeat against Cronulla Sharks in their 2024 NRL season-opener at Mt Smart. 

Tries to Addin Fonua-Blake and Luke Metcalf had the home team immediately on top, and threatening to take command of the contest, but the visitors stayed in the battle and slowly wrenched momentum their way.

While the Warriors continued to apply the blowtorch, they could not crack some determined Sharks defence near the tryline to wrestle the advantage back.

Warriors prop Mitch Barnett contained by the Cronulla defence.
Warriors prop Mitch Barnett contained by the Cronulla defence. Photo credit: Photosport

They also lost hooker Wayde Egan to an arm injury midway through the second half, placing doubt over his availability next week.

The Warriors survived an early scare, when winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak reeled from a tackle clutching his jaw, but did not leave the field.

A loose carry from centre Roger Tuivasa-Sheck gave the Sharks a chance that they squandered and the home side eventually broke the deadlock.

From a repeat set and quick transition around the breakdown, barnstorming prop Fonua-Blake tormented his future team with the opening try for the Warriors.

Cronulla turned the ball over on attack, with Shaun Johnson latching onto a loose pass, and at the other end, half partner Metcalf exploded through a flimsy tackle for a try. Both Johnson and Metcalf have spent time with the Sharks previously.

Watene-Zelezniak was in the wars again, when he leapt high for a Johnson crosskick on the tryline and was taken in midair by counterpart Ronaldo Mulitalo. Warriors captain Tohu Harris argued for more than just a penalty, but a period of sustained pressure came to nothing for the home side.

In fact, Cronulla won five straight penalties to turn momentum, but centre Siosifa Talakai was brought down centimetres from the tryline on the last tackle to end that threat.

Warriors fans had their wish granted, when fullback Taine Tuaupiki - standing in for injured incumbent Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad - was himself dispatched to the sideline for a head check, with Tuivasa-Sheck moving to the back, where he made his name.

From a penalty, the Sharks scored a soft try, with centre Jesse Ramien overpowering Jackson Ford and Metcalf on the left edge to barge over.

The Warriors led 12-6 at halftime, but their guests wasted no time striking after the break, with Mulitalo given the overlap and diving over in the tackle of Tuaupiki, who had passed his concussion test.

Cronulla had another chance to take the lead, when they won a penalty inside the red zone, but star half Nico Hynes spilled the ball with the line in sight.

Another rampaging burst from Fonua-Blake brought him within metres of scoring, before Sharks fullback Will Kennedy smothered a dangerous kick to the corner.

Cronulla grabbed their first advantage, when winger Sione Katoa made big metres down the right, and a long pass from Hynes gave Talakai and Mulitalo time and space to operate down the left, with Talakai taking a return pass to score.

Egan was held up on the last tackle on the tryline and when the ball was handed over, the markers drove the Sharks backwards. He emerged clasping his forearm and had to leave, later spotted with ice on his elbow.

Warriors celebrate a try to Addin Fonua-Blake.
Warriors celebrate a try to Addin Fonua-Blake. Photo credit: Photosport

Johnson had the Cronulla defence in fits with his kicking game, earning plenty of extra sets from line dropouts, but errors meant the Warriors never quite capitalised.

From another niggly Johnson kick, Kennedy barely made the field of play, but on the subsequent tackle, the ball came loose, handing possession to the Warriors hot on attack. Again, the Sharks defence held.

Yet another dropout gave the Warriors another chance in the dying moments, but Johnson's short pass to Ford drew another desperate tackle from Hynes to extinguish the threat.

Their last chance faded away in the final seconds, when a promising raid down the right went begging between centre Rocco Berry and Watene-Zeleniak, who could not gather the final pass on halfway.

"We really hurt ourselves," admitted Harris. "Our completion rate was terrible and we got real clunky in the second half.

"The Sharks came out in the second half and were the more aggressive side. We just struggled to get ourselves back into it and we've got a lot to improve on."

The Warriors must now regroup for an early-season gut check against perennial premiership contenders Melbourne Storm across the Tasman.

Cronulla Sharks 16 (Ramien, Mulitalo, Talakai tries; Trindall & Hynes conversions) NZ Warriors 12 (Fonua-Blake, Metcalf tries; Johnson 2 conversions)