Anthony Milford of the Broncos celebrates a try as Reece Walsh of the Warriors reacts. Photo / Getty
Don’t dream, it’s over.
The Warriors still have a mathematical chance, but their playoff chances are out of their hands after an excruciating 24-22 loss to the Broncos tonight.
The Auckland club will have to rely on unlikely results from the teams around them, even if they win their two remaining games.
While the Warriors showed great wit with their end-of-season resumption, it was a huge lost opportunity.
They were leading 14-12 with 25 minutes left, after falling 12-4, but were guilty of cutting twice as Albert Kelly and Anthony Milford scored opportunistic tries for the Broncos.
Still, they could have forced overtime, after Euan Aitken’s 77th-minute try, but Reece Walsh missed the conversion, then was right on it with a daring two-point field goal with 30 seconds left.
Goal kicks made the difference on the scoreboard, with Walsh missing four of five attempts, despite all coming from outside.
But it’s hard for the teenager. As a team, the Warriors have slipped from the standards set in previous weeks, especially in the first half.
They didn’t quite click for long stretches, allowing the Broncos to build up the pressure, and lacked liveliness on offense and hunger on defense,
Coach Nathan Brown, as he likes to do, shuffled the game before kick-off, leaving Wayde Egan on the bench and omitting Kodi Nikorima from the 17th, which was a brave choice.
The Warriors dodged a ball early, with the Broncos nearly forcing the ball under the posts, after a risky play by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak behind his own try line, before Aitken was turned down minutes later for a double move. .
The Broncos opened the scoring thanks to Xavier Coates, after Walsh completely misjudged a Milford bombshell. Hot footwork from Milford set up Coates soon after, after an unfortunate mistake from Watene-Zelezniak.
Walsh had struggled to get involved in the first quarter, but ultimately made his mark with a scorching break, beating four defenders from deep within his own turf. This sparked off the Warriors, with Montoya completing a long run down deep.
But the Broncos were dominant and should have extended their lead thanks to Milford, who was everywhere. The Brisbane playmaker was over the line – after an assist – before a miraculous effort from Peta Hiku to hold him in place.
Hiku came close at the other end, after a few pinballs, but the Warriors spent most of the first half on the back foot, forced to make nearly 80 more tackles than their opponents, unaided by eight errors.
They showed great wit in keeping their line intact, defending a series of sets as the home side benefited from some charitable appeals from officials in the later stages.
Instinctive magic from Hiku, who had a stormer, brought the Warriors closer early in the second half, as the center pushed the ball between two defenders with his foot, following a Watene-Zelezniak grubber, then went showed agility to touch the ground.
There was more to come, as Josh Curran made his way through a crushing charge from Bunty Afoa.
The Warriors had all the momentum but gave it away with a disappointing Broncos try. As a Milford kick spun around Kelly wanted it the most, while his opponents were guilty of staring at the ball.
But Hiku was unstoppable, with a subtle blow putting Watene-Zelezniak through, after Walsh’s pressure forced a line abandonment.
It evened the scores, setting up a frenzied 17-minute final. But Milford broke the Warriors’ hearts with an opportunistic try, having followed his own bombshell and lucked out because it was pushed back.
Aitken gave a bit of late hope – forcing a Walsh puller – but it wasn’t.
Bronco 24 (Xavier Coates 2, Albert Kelly, Anthony Milford tries; Herbie Farnworth 4 con)
Warriors 22 (Marcelo Montoya, Peta Hiku, Josh Curran, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Euan Aitken tries; Reece Walsh con)
Half time: 12-4