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Warriors NRL season 2023 reviewed: Magical moments from a magical season

Michael Burgess,
Publish Date
Sat, 23 Dec 2023, 1:51PM
The Warriors' unlikely run to the preliminary final captivated the nation in 2023. Photo / NZ Herald
The Warriors' unlikely run to the preliminary final captivated the nation in 2023. Photo / NZ Herald

Warriors NRL season 2023 reviewed: Magical moments from a magical season

Michael Burgess,
Publish Date
Sat, 23 Dec 2023, 1:51PM

Rank outsiders at the start of the season, the Warriors’ run to the preliminary final captured the imagination in 2023. Michael Burgess looks back at the memorable moments from a magical campaign. 

  1. Warriors 30 Dolphins 8, June 3

This was one of Andrew Webster’s favourite matches and that’s good enough for us. Despite their leanest run of the season – with four losses from their five previous games – almost 24,000 people turned up to Mt Smart. 

That show of faith was rewarded, built on one of the best defensive efforts of the season, relentlessly pinning the Dolphins in their own territory. It was only 6-4 with less than 30 minutes to play before the Warriors came home strong. Shaun Johnson again impressed, with his first NRL brace since 2016. 

Herald verdict: “If the Warriors are still hedging their bets over Shaun Johnson’s future, they need to stop now.” 

  1. Warriors 30 Tigers 22, August 12

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak managed 24 tries from just 20 games in 2023, beating the previous club record of 23 held by David Fusitu’a and Frances Meli. Many were from improbable positions, as he flew through the air, finding a way to contort his body and touch down. 

One of the most memorable came in this Hamilton match, a “home” game for the Tigers. Watene-Zelezniak was almost sideways as he dived through the air, with a defender scrambling across, but he still managed to ground the ball before careering into a sideline billboard. “Surely not”, exclaimed the Sky Television commentator, echoing the thoughts of everyone at the ground. 

Herald verdict: “The overriding emotion at the end was relief.” 

  1. Warriors 20 Knights 12, March 3

This was gritty, nervy win to start the Webster era. The coach had promised resilience and his team delivered, with a series of big defensive plays. The best came late in the second half, with the match in the balance at 14-12. A spectacular Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad tackle on Kalyn Ponga saved a certain try, before Hymel Hunt was stopped by Adam Pompey when he looked odds on to score. 

Herald verdict: “If this was the signature performance of an Andrew Webster-coached team, we’ll take it.” 

  1. Warriors 16 Bulldogs 14, March 26

The first match at Mt Smart and another pointer towards a renaissance. The Warriors did it the hard way, finding a way back after trailing 14-6 with less than 30 minutes to play. Johnson’s match-winning try grabbed the headlines, a solo effort as he dummied and weaved close to the line. The result was built on tough goal-line defence. 

Herald verdict: “The 2023 Warriors laugh in the face of danger.” 

  1. Warriors 44 Sharks 12, July 16

This game marked the Warriors as genuine playoff contenders. Tipped to be a tight contest, the Warriors blew the Sydney team away. They scored eight tries against the fourth-placed Sharks and the game was over with 25 minutes to play. 

It was compelling stuff, on a rare Sunday afternoon at Mt Smart. The highlight was a magical six-minute burst in the first half, with three brilliant tries. The first saw Rocco Berry run off a precise Johnson pass before Addin Fonua-Blake carried three defenders over the line in a menacing run. The coup de grace was a long-range Luke Metcalf effort after Wayde Egan had created space. 

Herald verdict“This was brutal, beautiful and bewitching.” 

  1. Warriors 21 Raiders 20, July 21

Another “remember when” moment for the archives, with a spectacular finish. With the Raiders desperate to stay in finals contention, they brought plenty to the contest. The Warriors looked home with a 20-10 lead in the 78th minute before a Canberra miracle brought two tries in two minutes. After a let-off – with Jarrod Croker’s missed sideline conversion attempt – the Warriors regained their composure – before Johnson’s clutch field goal, from 35 metres out. 

Herald verdict: “In a campaign of unprecedented thrills and spills, this was a sign that they are destined for something special.” 

  1. Cowboys 12 Warriors 26, March 18.

A red letter day. It ended a 13-match losing streak across the Tasman, dating back to April 2022 and was only their second positive result in Townsville since 2000. It was also the moment that the coaches – and players – knew their pre-season exertions were bearing fruit. 

“That was a big game,” Webster told the Herald. “That was when we started to see the evidence.” 

After trailing 12-6, the Warriors scored 20 unanswered points. It was a performance of control, confidence and composure, the perfect way to mark Tohu Harris’ 200th NRL match. Rookie fullback Taine Tuaupiki handled a tough initiation well, while Johnson and Pompey managed vital try-saving tackles. 

Herald match report: “Ask yourself, when have you seen the Warriors play like this?” 

The NZ Herald front page, featuring Warriors superstar Shaun Johnson. 

  1. Raiders 14 Warriors 36, June 9

In a season of statement performances, this was one of the biggest. The Warriors walked into a Canberra cauldron, with a capacity crowd to celebrate Croker’s 300th match. They didn’t start well, stuck in quicksand for most of the first half, with a huge deficit in possession and territory. But they refused to yield, before four unanswered second-half tries in 19 minutes sealed the result. Rookie centre Ali Leiataua had an outstanding NRL debut while Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was superb in his return to Canberra. 

Herald verdict“In front of the biggest crowd in Canberra for years the Warriors touched new heights.” 

  1. Sharks 30 Warriors 32, April 2

If you reflect on the Warriors hysteria that engulfed the nation in 2023, this improbable victory was the spark. It was an all-time classic, beamed out free to air through Channel Nine in Australia and at a family-friendly 6pm time here. It was a Roy of the Rovers style comeback, the kind you dream about but rarely see and the second biggest in club history. 

The Warriors looked gone at 20-0 down. They looked gone at 26-6 down. But they stayed solid, working their way back into the match, defying the tiny margins for error. After a Josh Curran try levelled the scores, a clutch Johnson penalty from 35 metres took the Warriors into the lead in the 79th minute. There was still more drama – as Nicho Hynes had a penalty shot after the hooter – but his long-range effort went wide. 

Herald verdict“The result was one of almost unbelievable proportions.” 

  1. Warriors 40 Knights 10, September 16

Off the back of the heavy playoff defeat in Penrith, the Warriors came into this match under pressure. They didn’t want to suffer the ignominy of a straight sets finals exit but faced a red-hot Knights team, while Johnson was under an injury cloud. 

In the end, it couldn’t have been scripted any better. In their first home finals match since 2008, the Warriors were relentless, giving the Knights no chance. They led 16-4 at halftime then went on with it, sparking unforgettable scenes of celebration and joy. 

Johnson enjoyed a special send-off from his adoring fans while the capacity crowd singing the team victory song will live long in the memory. 

Herald verdict“If you are going to play your biggest match in more than a decade, why not come up with a performance for the ages?” 

- NZ Herald

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