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Keeping up with(out) the Jones
The raid on Newcastle's citadel supplied the best collection so far of new entries for the ever-growing list of things to like about the New Zealand Warriors in 2002. Not least, of course, was the fact Daniel Anderson's men should at last register the Warriors' first win at Marathon Stadium, or Energy Australia Stadium as it's evidently known now.
It wasn't that the club had been there and failed countless times before. There had, in fact, been only four previous visits to the ground.
It's put into context, though, by feeding more detail into the argument.
Like the fact the Knights have done more to make their home patch a graveyard for visitors than any other NRL side (perhaps Brisbane excepted). They'd started 2002 in exactly that vein by winning three out of three there and hitting 50 points each time.
And adding weight to the magnitude of the Warriors 'achievement was the fact the first four matches in Newcastle produced such ugly outcomes - 6-48 in 1995, 4-33 in 1998, 12-30 in 1999 and 24-45 in 2000.
So a 34-12 win at Marathon had to be more than special. That leaves just one monkey now - beating Brisbane at ANZ Stadium. Round 16 this year maybe?
Stretching the sequence of wins to four so early in the year was encouraging as well; it's an advance on the 2001 Warriors who managed four on end and a draw only towards the end of the regulation season.
Another plus was the completion of a perfect set of scalps for Anderson as Warriors coach. In little more than a season he's already managed to beat every one of the other 14 clubs.
For something else to like there was Clinton Toopi and the way he played all over New South Wales State of Origin reject Matthew Gidley. Toopi's two tries took him to the top of the NRL's tryscoring chart with nine touchdowns in nine games - all nine actually coming in his last seven games - only to be overtaken when fellow Kiwi Nigel Vagana crossed three times for the Bulldogs on Sunday to leap to 10. There was more Toopi brilliance on Friday night, too, when he created Brent Webb's late try.
There was also more for the list from Ivan Cleary, captaining the Warriors for the first time and knowing he'd led the side to a landmark success. Nice too evidently was his touch at halftime when he stood by the dressing room door, handing out a word of praise to every player as he walked past.
As has become the norm this season, there was a lot to like about Cleary's personal performance as well. He's stepped up a level in 2002 and on Friday night he grabbed his fourth try of the season, kicked five goals and cracked 100 points only nine games into the competition (his 104 points now behind only Andrew Johns' 110 points).
But for all that, there could be no argument that the best aspect of the night was not only winning in Newcastle but doing so without the man who's been the heart and soul of the team - Stacey Jones. Functioning successfully without his full array of gifted skills means infinitely more to the Warriors than any of the other pluses to emerge from Operation Marathon.
For all but 14 minutes the players had to live without him against South Sydney. At least then they were in friendly territory riding home on the back of a home crowd to eke out an untidy victory.
But on Friday night the mission was far more demanding, or so it seemed.
Newcastle without five Origin players - and most importantly Andrew Johns - had to be vulnerable on face value even though it was a home game. No Jones, and no Kevin Campion either, evened matters out, though.
Anderson opted to back an inexperienced pairing in the halves - 20-year-old Motu Tony (23 games) and 19-year-old Lance Hohaia (6 games) - preferring not to take P J Marsh out of hooker. Better, Anderson said, to make just one change rather than mess with two positions.
Every Warriors follower recalls Mark Graham's disastrous handling of the No 7 jersey when Jones was last injured, missing the start of the 2000 season.
The notion seemed absurd from the outset that Graham should believe Robert Mears could do the halfback's job. It was utterly crazy. He was persevered with for three games before Graham tried local Ben Lythe for another four until Jones returned. Of those seven games, the Warriors beat Melbourne, drew with Newcastle and lost the other five including what was at the time a record 56-12 loss to Canberra.
The Warriors have, of course, moved forward a long way from those dreadful times. After his rough baptism in 2001, Anderson has been able to build a squad that's now notable for its depth and cover in all positions. He's been able to adapt after losing Monty Betham and Shontayne Hape for the year.
Still, there had to be some nervousness about surviving for at least three games without the club's most important and celebrated player.
That there was little need to worry at all in the end was a major relief.
Tony was handed the perfect start in the opening minutes courtesy of a quality Ali Lauitiiti offload that enabled him to score his 12th try in his 24th NRL game. That allowed him to settle into his new duties.
The star, though, was Hohaia who's displayed extraordinary maturity ever since his debut in the 50-20 win against North Queensland. There's a lovely balance about everything he does - nice hands, great feet, excellent speed and evasive skills, a solid kicking game and a fair tryscoring appetite as well. His try on Friday night was his fourth in seven outings.
Of course, the big blokes - especially the increasingly impressive Mark Tookey - were central to enabling the little guys to work their way into such a critical game. And another small man - P J Marsh - was equally invaluable with the way he controlled the ebb and flow from dummy half.
There's no reason why the recipe shouldn't work again in Melbourne next Saturday and back at Ericsson against the Sharks on June 2. The Warriors have proven to themselves that they can keep up without the Jones so far.
That's not to say they won't welcome him back as soon as possible but the club's outlook is a lot healthier than Newcastle's when it doesn't have its J man. The Knights have won only two of the last nine games they've been without him.