The NRL returned to Canterbury in spectacular style on Sunday as a 12,000-strong crowd packed out Rugby League Park to watch Melbourne Storm and the Warriors produce a physical and entertaining final trial in scorching conditions. The Storm came home with a wet sail to win 24-6 after trailing at halftime.

While the return of NRL teams to Christchurch after a four-year absence – and the Storm’s first-ever match in the South Island – was the main attraction, there was a significant local flavour on a memorable afternoon.

The curtain-raiser saw perennial grand final adversaries Linwood and Hornby lock horns in a hard-fought trial, the Keas handling the surging temperature more effectively to carve out a 32-18 victory.

An excited batch of Canterbury juniors then took the field as the crowd swelled, Rolleston Warriors 8s taking on their Eastern Eagles counterparts and Northern Bulldogs and Halswell Hornets squaring off in a 10s grade match. All four teams did their clubs proud on a day they won’t soon forget, later getting the chance to meet their NRL heroes, while a select few had the chance to ride the sidelines as ballkids for the main game.

Melbourne has been the NRL’s benchmark club of the past two decades, but the sea of Warriors merchandise in the stands and the thunderous roar as the New Zealand-based club took the field in Ōtautahi for the first time since 2019 left no question about who the crowd favourites were. A pre-match moment’s silence for Kiwis affected by Cyclone Gabrielle added a poignant touch to the occasion.

The heat undoubtedly contributed to a welter of dropped ball in the first half, but a 50-metre runaway try to Dallin Watene-Zeleniak from a scrum win – after Warriors recruit Marata Niukore had crunched Storm forward Aaron Pene to force an error – brought the house down at Orangetheory Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ superb scrambling defence kept the Storm scoreless in the opening 40 minutes, despite the constant threat posed by superstars Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Xavier Coates.

The tide turned in the second half, however, as ex-Warriors back-rower Eliesa Katoa streaked away to put the Storm on the board after excellent lead-up work from Kangaroos hooker Harry Grant. Winger Will Warbrick and Asofa-Solomona kept the Kiwi monopoly on the tryscoring list going to give Melbourne a 12-point buffer, before Coates sealed the result with nine minutes left by climbing high over Ed Kosi to take a bomb and dot down in the corner.

Canterbury Rugby League had the pleasure of hosting valued sponsors at the event, including CRL junior programme naming rights sponsor Whitehead Plumbing & Gas, and MEP Fabrications, the naming rights sponsor of CRL’s referees programme.

“Today was a wonderful day for rugby league in Canterbury,” Canterbury Rugby League CEO Malcolm Humm said post-match.

“Firstly, to get such a quality side as Melbourne Storm to Christchurch playing the Warriors is exciting and – although the result didn’t go their way – having the well-supported Warriors playing in front of a large parochial crowd is something our city has been waiting a long time to see.

“To have just over 12,000 people attend an NRL pre-season match in our city must be viewed as significant by both teams and the NRL. We hope this will lead to more NRL games being brought to the Garden City.”

Main photo Credit: One NZ Warriors

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