Super second half tries by Shaun Johnson and Bodene Thompson ensured the Vodafone Warriors were able to celebrate Simon Mannering's landmark 250th appearance in the perfect manner as they accounted for Gold Coast 27-18 in Saturday night's 17th-round NRL clash at Mount Smart Stadium.
The week's lead-up was all about the #Mannering250 cause and his team-mates weren't about to let him down.
In a quirk of fate, a virus laid official captain Ryan Hoffman low resulting in Mannering poignantly taking the captain's armband in his celebration match.
He didn't cross the line this time - as he did twice in his 200th match two years ago - but he delivered in truckloads as usual all over the park making 11 tough runs and coming up with 38 tackles including a couple of stunning efforts with no misses.
Most importantly, though, the victory maintained the Vodafone Warriors' mid-season resurgence which has seen them win four of their last five games. By the end of the evening they were also back in the top eighth, claming eighth spot when Penrith slipped back after its 26-34 loss to Wests Tigers.
Both sides were disrupted in the lead-up to the contest, the Vodafone Warriors forced to go into a match for the first time this season without Hoffman so Mannering was called out of ‘retirement’ to lead the side on his special day. It meant 19-year-old Bunty Afoa came onto the bench to debut as Vodafone Warrior #213.
The Titans were far more adversely affected losing both of their captains William Zillman and Nathan Friend as well as brilliant young halfback Ash Taylor and bench forward Eddy Pettybourne. Josh Hoffman went to fullback, Karl Lawton came into the centres and Cameron Cullen at halfback while Lachlan Burr and ex-Vodafone Warrior Nathaniel Peteru were added to the bench.
Following an ovation for the 250-game man as he ran onto the field with his sons Zeke and Jack, the contest began routinely enough, the Vodafone Warriors moving down the field well with their first set in possession - o nly for it to go awfully wrong.
It unravelled as Hoffman raced onto Blake Ayshford's last tackle grubber near his line, finding a gaping hole in the home side's chasing line and running close to the length of the field for a try that shocked the home crowd.
At 0-6 down after two minutes, the Vodafone Warriors were a little slow to warm to their work with an error soon after resulting in a defensive shift inside their 20.
Ayshford defused the threat spectacularly, though, intercepting a Tyrone Roberts pass on his 20 and beating a group of chasers on an 80-metre run for his eighth try of the season. Issac Luke’s conversion made it 6-6 after 10 minutes.
Another error near halfway gave the Titans good field position again. They capitalised on it, Roberts floating a bomb to the left where wing Nene Macdonald climbed above the defence to catch and score. No conversion from Roberts and it was 10-6 to Gold Coast after 17 minutes.
Tuimoala Lolohea and David Fusitu’a combined to save a try in the corner and the Vodafone Warriors had to scramble – and they scrambled well – to avert more damage when former Vodafone Warrior Agnatius Paasi threatened close to the posts.
Debutant Afoa was thrown into the action early and immediately responded with a thundering front-on tackle near his line as the home side turned the visitors away again.
Johnson initiated their second try, a mixture of a dummy, footwork and speed leaving the Titans flailing. They knocked down a pass and from the scrum on the left the Vodafone Warriors shifted slickly to their right, Ayshford drawing Macdonald in and giving Lolohea an opening. He juggled the pass momentarily and then aimed at the corner, getting the ball down superbly. Referee Matt Cecchin called it a try as he sent it to the bunker. Eventually it was verified, an example of yet another stunning finish by a wing. Luke couldn’t convert leaving it 10-10 after 33 minutes, as it remained at halftime.
The second half started dismally for the Titans as Lawton’s debut came to a grim end when he was stretchered off after suffering a serious leg injury in the 46th minute.
The initial scoring action in the second half was centred on shots at goal, first Roberts potting two points from a penalty to put Gold Coast ahead 12-10 but in quick order the Vodafone Warriors were gifted two penalties in front of the posts and Luke nailed both to put his side in front 14-12.
With possession from the restart, the Vodafone Warriors set about building more pressure with some brilliance added in.
It came as they went right near halfway, none other than Jacob Lillyman at first receiver shooting out a delightful left to right ball to Johnson, who got on the outside and dazzled all in sundry to score a superlative try which showcased all his skills. Included was fantastic fend on Leivaha Pulu and some hot stepping which left fullback Hoffman wondering what on earth had happened but, elated as Johnson was, Lillyman was wearing the widest smile after an 'assist' he might describe for many years to come.
Luke converted for an all-important eight-point lead after 66 minutes.
Seven minutes later the Vodafone Warriors engineered a try from a scrum for the second time in the game, great ball to the right with another front rower Gubbat first receiver shifting to Thomas Leuluai who popped a sweet ball up for a surging Thompson to scorch 28 metres on an angled run for what was the match-sealer.
With Luke's conversion the lead was out to 26-12, trimmed to 26-18 through a converted 77th-minute Cameron Cullen try before Johnson gave the match a punctuation mark with a field goal, just for the hell of it.
With four wins in their last five starts bookended by two byes (the second next week), the Vodafone Warriors are looking at a haul of 12 of a possible 14 points. It has seeen them recovered from a modest 4-7 win-loss record at the end of May to 8-8 now ahead of their last eight games of the regular season. They sit just two points behind sixth-placed Brisbane.
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 27 (Blake Ayshford, Tuimoala Lolohea, Shaun Johnson, Bodene Thompson tries; Issac Luke 3 conversions, 2 penalties; Shaun Johnson field goal).
Gold Coast Titans 18 (Josh Hoffman, Nene Macdonald, Cameron Cullen tries; Tyrone Roberts 2 conversions, penalty).
Referees: Matt Cecchin and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors | David Fusitu'a; Tuimoala Lolohea, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Albert Vete; Bodene Thompson, Simon Mannering (c); Charlie Gubb. Interchange: Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Ben Matulino, Bunty Afoa.