Dare anyone whisper the phrase "premiership title contenders" to the New Zealand Warriors? A club record sixth win in succession over the Cronulla Sharks in Auckland yesterday has kept the Warriors right in the hunt for the National Rugby League minor premiership.
The coaching staff and players have continually played down their expectations for the season, but there has been a lingering suspicion the Warriors believe they are capable of finishing in the top half of the playoff qualifiers.
That theory was only heightened yesterday when they thumped the slumping Sharks 42-20 at Ericsson Stadium yesterday, but the after-match talk centred chiefly on disappointment with the display.
Coach Daniel Anderson, who maintained his tradition of making late and unexpected changes in personnel by bringing back Stacey Jones for the round 12 encounter, expressed "disappointment in our skill level".
"I've got high expectations of them," Anderson admitted after the seven tries to four victory that keeps the Warriors one point of the top of the NRL table.
His comments emphasised just how high a club that has constantly failed to flatter since its inception has set the bar in 2002.
Anderson rightly attributed the win in wet and windy conditions to his rampaging forward pack that proved too powerful, skilled and mobile for an inexperienced Sharks team.
Two-try Awen Guttenbeil, props Mark Tookey and Jerry Seuseu and the off-loading Ali Lauiti'iti led the way for the Warriors, and it's the pack, rather than the creative genius of Jones and the continued emergence of Waikato's Lance Hohaia, that truly worries opposing clubs.
"They're big and strong," acknowledged Sharks and Australian national team coach Chris Anderson.
"They play a lot more controlled football than they used to . . . they know how to play 80 minutes of football now."
His skipper Brett Kimmorley concurred: "They're great all over the park.
"Stacey gets them around the park so well too and his kicking game was great - we hoped he didn't start."
Jones wasn't expected to return from an injury suffered three weeks ago until next Sunday against the North Queensland Cowboys, but he trained well enough on Friday to convince Anderson he was ready.
"I wanted him to play in a dinner suit," Anderson said in reference to the hope his club's most influential player would escape unscathed.Like