An astonishing second half Vodafone Warriors comeback was ultimately in vain in today's season-opening NRL clash against Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Sports Stadium.
The visitors were in serious trouble trailing 4-28 at the break but the first 25 minutes of the second spell delivered a quite remarkable recovery as the Vodafone Warriors produced four unanswered tries to leave them just 26-28 down with 12 minutes to play.
A scarcely believable victory was within reach but, as they pushed for their fifth try of the half, Wests Tigers seized on an opportunity to seal the deal.
A Shaun Johnson chip pinballed about, finished up in fullback James Tedesco's hands and he went 50 metres to give the Tigers a 34-26 win in a breathtaking contest that left the Vodafone Warriors with nothing to show for their efforts.
The damage had been done in a first half when the opening moments were at best unusual.
A very early penalty to the Vodafone Warriors wasn't taken advantage of with the kick failing to find touch but they atoned for the error by immediately bundling Wests Tigers prop Aaron Woods into touch.
A solid set followed finishing with Johnson putting the ball into touch but then it was the Tigers' turn to receive a penalty - and they reaped the ultimate reward, working an easy try for second rower Curtis Sironen midway between the posts and the touchline. Mitchell Moses nailed the conversion and the home side had the edge 6-0 after seven minutes.
Making his presence felt after being called into the starting side was prop James Gavet in his first NRL appearance for the club against his old side. He had the throttle down and got his right arm free only for his offload to miss the target with a try beckoning for Solomone Kata.
The Tigers dodged that bullet and immediately arranged a second try after 15 minutes, Chris Lawrence slipping a sharp short ball to his left for Kyle Lovett to slice through.
The 12-0 lead was extended minutes later when the Tigers put heat on the Vodafone Warriors' defensive line, got more front foot ball and shifted right for wing David Nofualuma to score wide out. Moses missed the conversion but the Tigers were 16-0 ahead after just 20 minutes.
A visit to the NRL bunker saved the Vodafone Warriors conceding a fourth try and the Vodafone Warriors made the most of the let-off, James Tedesco spilling a bomb and Kata sweeping up the loose ball for his 13th career try and the club's first of the year. Tuimoala Lolohea had the kicking duties but his effort was well wide.
Having bitten into the deficit, though, the Vodafone Warriors then yielded another try, Kevin Naiqama pushing a kick infield and fullback James Tedesco surging onto it unopposed to score his side's fourth try. With another Moses conversion the Tigers were 22-4 ahead in the first half hour.
A disappointing start was exacerbated by more dreadful bad luck for second rower Ben Henry. Making his comeback from his second knee reconstruction, Henry was left in distress after his twice-operated-on-knee was caught awkwardly: he had to be helped off the field once again with what seemed likely to be another season-ending leg injury.
While the Vodafone Warriors applied some pressure they weren't able to keep the margin to 18 points at halftime, the Tigers going 90 metres for a spectacular try for centre Tim Simona. Moses' conversion gave his side 28-4 lead at the break.
After the off-colour opening 40 minutes, the Vodafone Warriors came out with clear intent to make amends in the opening stanza of the second half and the rewards came.
First they set sight at the posts, Johnson holding up a no-look short ball nicely for Simon Mannering to go over under the bar, Lolohea's conversion over and the margin was 10-28 after 46 minutes.
In the 57th minute the Vodafone Warriors kept the ball alive on defence, interchange hooker Nathaniel Roache picking up a loose Tigers pass and intuitively releasing Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on a long break. He seemed destined to go all the way only to be rounded up short. The spread right was the way to go, Manu Vatuvei flinging a long pass to Johnson and ultimately he found Bodene Thompson with the out-numbered Tigers unable to stop him scoring. Lolohea's conversion attempt hit an upright and bounced back infield.
At 14-28, the Vodafone Warriors were building and sustaining pressure as they dominated possession. First Vatuvei went close but was checked by resolute defence and then in the 64th minute there was more joy, Johnson with his magic feet getting him across under the bar for Lolohea to convert again.
Two minutes later the comeback went to another level with a truly outstanding try. Shifting the ball superbly to the right, the Vodafone Warriors freed Lolohea on the wing. He raced clear and then push a pass infield where Mannering picked it up on the bounce to put Kata over. Another Lolohea conversion and it was 26-28 with 13 minutes still to play.
The momentum was with the Vodafone Warriors but another try, a potential match-winner, didn't come.
Unfortunately Tedesco and the Tigers had the final say instead in a match which left the Vodafone Warriors to rue what unfolded in the first 40 minutes.
Match details | Campbelltown Sports Stadium, Sydney
Wests Tigers 34 (James Tedesco 2, Curtis Sironen, Kyle Lovett, David Nofualuma, Tim Simona tries; Mitchell Moses 5 conversions).
Vodafone Warriors 26 (Solomone Kata 2, Simon Mannering, Bodene Thompson, Shaun Johnson tries; Tuimoala Lolohea 3 conversions).
Halftime | 28-4 Wests Tigers.
Referees | Ashley Klein and Chris Sutton.
Crowd | 10,917.
Vodafone Warriors | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck; Tuimoala Lolohea, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Jeff Robson, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, James Gavet; Ben Henry, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Bodene Thompson.