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After the success of 2002, you?d think that Warriors fans might be vaguely disappointed at falling one step short of another grand-final appearance in 2003. But in truth, after a patchy season, most Warriors fans are delighted about the way the team finished the season.
It could have been much worse. A certain Rugby League Week actually predicted a few weeks from the end of the minor premiership rounds that the Warriors would be the unlucky side to miss the top 8, probably scraping into 9th after a tough run home which included matches against the Broncos and the Roosters. For Warriors fans, these two matches ended up likely to go down as two of the best victories in the club?s history.
Many pundits suggested that the Warriors would greatly miss the experience of Kevin Campion and Ivan Cleary (in particular, Campion?s defence and Cleary?s goal-kicking). Although they didn?t completely put these predictions to shame, the Warriors of 2003 went a long towards proving that they can succeed predominantly on the back of the relatively young, and predominantly Kiwi talent that has been nurtured by the club for 4 or 5 years now, and particularly over the last 3 under Daniel Anderson. The likes of Clinton Toopi, Francis Meli, Henry Fa?afili, and Wairangi Koopu have been at the club for a number of years now and should be consistent performers, which on the whole they are. Monty Betham did his best to take over the role of Campion, and his leadership and (perhaps more importantly) his performances on the field improved over the course of the season, and like Campion he was possibly the team?s best defender. The goal-kicking woes were not really fixed, but perhaps more by good luck than good management they didn?t have too much effect on the season.
Early in the season, the Warriors looked like they were going to continue right on with their 2002 form. After a disappointing first-up loss to Newcastle, they strung together a succession of victories, capped off with the spectacular 32-12 defeat of Brisbane at ANZ. The form of PJ Marsh and Lance Hohaia in particular was vital to the success, and the mid-season slump in form can probably be attributed in no small way to their loss, through a serious neck injury and an inexplicable patch of poor form respectively. The loss of Marsh was bad enough, but the heart-breaking defeat at the hands of Parramatta in the same match was a devastating blow, especially as moments before the unbelievable late capitulation, the Warriors had played perhaps their best football of the season to that point. A pair of hammerings at the hands of Penrith doesn?t look so bad now that the Panthers have swept aside all challengers to take the NRL title, but at the time they were major dents to confidence. The Cake Tin curse struck again as the Warriors suffered defeats in Wellington against both the Bulldogs and Canberra. Unconvincing victories over the Eels at Ericsson, and the struggling Sharks (twice) hardly had fans in raptures, as the Warriors were unable to rack up the big victories they had managed in 2002.
The Warriors mid-season slump was probably best summed up by their 31-30 victory over lowly Souths at Aussie Stadium. After a pitiful defensive effort for 50 minutes of the game, the Warriors turned on a brief patch of breathtaking football, somehow reversing a 24-6 score line to take a 30-24 lead with minutes to go. Then, as quickly as they asserted total dominance, they went to sleep on defence again and conceded a late equalising try, before scraping home with a 35 metre Stacey Jones golden-point drop-goal. Patches of brilliance were mixed with moments of ineptitude, and the end product was barely convincing, yet hinted that better things were possible.
However, like all good teams the Warriors were able to hit top gear when it mattered, and the aforementioned wins over the Broncos and the Roosters are the best examples of that. Although the Broncos were in the midst of a form slump, the game at Ericsson was a classic encounter, filled with memorable moments, most notably Richard Villasanti?s early tackle on Shane Webcke, which left Webcke dazed and the Ericsson crowd more alive than ever. Also impressive was the unlikely halves combination of Sione Faumuina and Thomas Leuluai, and the revitalised form of Francis Meli, who has been so impressive in the early season run.
Warriors? fans will also be looking forward to 2004 for the performances of the teams remaining two Australian stars in 2003 (Mark Tookey, Justin Murphy and John Carlaw were relegated to bit parts), Brent Webb and Villasanti. After some patchy early performances at fullback, Webb blossomed to become one of the back lines most dangerous weapons, and although it seems almost sacrilege to say it, was clearly more effective than Stacey Jones as both a playmaker and ball runner late in the season. Villasanti?s form has been rewarded with a place in the Kangaroo squad, while his huge hits seem certain to inspire fear in opposition forwards for years to come.
Both Webb and Villasanti were influential performers in the Warriors first round play-off match against the Bulldogs. The 48-22 score line, and the 5-try performance of Francis Meli will live long in many league fans memories. This performance, more than any other, will ensure that most Warriors fans look back favourably on 2003.
Overall, in 2003 the Warriors proved that they could survive without the influence of Campion and Cleary, although for a large part of the season it looked like the doubters would be proved right. It was a season of transition. Most of the season the Warriors were stuck in second gear, hampered by injuries to Ali Lauiti?iti, Marsh, Hohaia, Jones, Motu Tony, Villasanti, and Toopi, and straight out lethargic performances, but towards the end of the season there was obviously a lot of belief within the team, and certainly no shortage in ability. By retaining the same core of players, the Warriors should hopefully be there or thereabouts at the business end of 2004.
And now for a few of the requisite rewards
Player of the Year: Francis Meli nudges out Sione Faumuina and Brent Webb. His performance against the Bulldogs, taking his season try tally to a Warriors record of 23, sealed the deal. Had a quiet patch mid-season but couldn?t stop scoring tries either side of it, and was running over the top of defenders and making memorable tackles all season. Faumuina also had an excellent season and showed off an amazing array of skills, from the overhead pass against the Broncos to the grubber against the Roosters, to the chip and regather against the Eels. Webb?s late season form was terrific. Logan Swann and Vinnie Anderson deserve credit for consistent performances, while Richard Villasanti missed too much of the season to be considered and the brilliant late season form of Clinton Toopi didn?t quite atone for his mediocre early season efforts.
Rookie Of the Year: Thomas Leuluai takes this one almost by default; he was very solid if not spectacular every time he took the field. Evarn Tuimavave will be hoping to make more of his opportunities next year, while Tevita Latu impressed.
Best Win: The Bulldogs effort takes the cake, although the consecutive victories of Brisbane and the Roosters were memorable, as was the early season defeat of Brisbane at ANZ.
Worst Loss: The most devastating was the late capitulation at Parramatta, although losses to the Cowboys, and an Andrew Johns-less Newcastle at Marathon were probably inferior performances.
Best Hit: Villasanti on Webcke is the one that everyone will remember, although my personal favourite was Meli on Wesser in the loss to the Panthers at Ericsson.
Best Try: Hard to go past Evarn Tuimavave?s try at ANZ, from Sione Faumuina?s freakish overhead pass. Other notable efforts were Faumuina?s 70-metre run against the Bulldogs, and his chip and chase against the Eels that lead to a Brent Webb try, again from all of 70 metres. Also, Clinton Toopi?s try against Souths, on the back of a 50m Iafeta Palea?aesina charge directly from the kick-off.
And it would be remiss of me not to say farewell on behalf of all Warriors fans to Motu Tony and Logan Swann, who both went out on a high with very good seasons.