It may just be the loss that the Cronulla Sharks had to have. A gritty NZ Warriors outfit gave the Sharks a real indication of things to come, as the New Zealanders continue their late charge for the NRL Top 8 Finals Series.
Prior to the match, the Cronulla Sharks, were coming with the equal NRL lead on 32 points, were the worst perpetrators on a wet Auckland evening with 16 errors and an abysmal 26 per cent completion rate.
The Warriors were not much better with 12 errors and 29 per cent completion of their own but it was Stuart, not opposing coach Ivan Cleary, who was left to bemoan a losing performance.
“[There were] too many mistakes tonight – fundamental mistakes,” Stuart said.
“Passing out of dummy half, dropped balls on collision, bad passing – just a really very poor game skill-wise.
“It was an A-grade game tonight, not a first-grade game.”
With a third home victory in a row under his belt, Cleary sung the praises of his side’s continued defensive resurgence, which has resulted in six wins from seven outings.
Holders of the NRL’s worst defensive record for most of the first half of the season, the Warriors have turned it around over the past two months and as a result may finish the round back in the top eight.
“Defensively, we’re miles ahead of where we were at the start of the year,” Cleary said.
“That’s come through hard work and a great attitude.”
Warriors captain Steve Price, who missed the first 10 rounds of the season with a hamstring injury, echoed the sentiment.
“Defence won the night and it was great from our boys,” Price said.
“We dropped a little bit of ball and so did they, but particularly earlier in the year if we had’ve done that we had tries scored against us and tonight we didn’t.”
There was one sour note on the night for the Warriors, with fullback Wade McKinnon being placed on report for a shoulder charge to the head of Sharks hooker Isaac de Gois early in the game.
Only two weeks into his return from major knee surgery, the loss of McKinnon to suspension would be a crushing blow in the race to the play-offs but Cleary felt he had nothing to answer for.
“I’m surprised. I’m not sure what the problem was,” Cleary said.
“It wasn’t late, I don’t think. That’s my opinion.”
Cronulla has a fullback concern of its own, with Brett Kearney facing a spell on the sideline after a blow to his hip.
Stuart said Kearney was “not real good” after the match and may be facing two weeks on the sideline, which comes as a further blow as he has just returned from a six-week lay-off with an ankle injury.
NZ WARRIORS 18 (L Hohaia J Ropati M Vatuvei tries M Witt 3 goals) bt CRONULLA 4 (L Covell try) at Mt Smart Stadium. Referee: T Archer. Crowd: 10,417.