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Golden point pain yet again

Richard Becht | Image: www.photosport.nz

For the third time in four matches the Vodafone Warriors have gone to golden point and lost, a stunning comeback in regular time ending in a painful 22-26 extra-time loss in today's 20th-round NRL clash against Canberra at GIO Stadium.

The contest had started gloriously when the club's veteran try-scoring record holder Manu Vatuvei became only the 11th player in the competition's history to score 150 career tries - and capping the achievement with one of the most spectacular finishes of his career.

With only 12 minutes left it seemed his act was set to be overshadowed by a disappointing outcome with the Vodafone Warriors down 4-22 after a barnstorming Joey Leilua try.

But these Vodafone Warriors haven't wanted for mettle since they lost the 'home' match against the Raiders in New Plymouth on May 21.

The final stanza delivered drama on drama as the visitors took the match to a place not many would have believed was possible. The players and coaching staff did.

The inspiration came from standoff Thomas Leuluai who produced a remarkable display throughout with his aggressive running and intent.

A  minute after Leilua's strike, he steamed through a hole for a try ultimately rubber-stamped by the bunker and then forced his way over for a second in the 72nd minute. Issac Luke converted both from handy angles and the deficit was just six points at 16-22 with seven minutes to play.

Just when it seemed like another try wasn't coming the unthinkable happened.

On the final tackle in the last set in regular time, Shaun Johnson teased the defence, flicked the ball wide to the right and David Fusitu'a - moved to the wing with Tuimoala Lolohea on the field - slipped in and put the ball down superbly in the corner. It was 22-24 and Luke had all the pressure in the world placed on him. He didn't disappoint with a wonderfully judged conversion to tie it up 22-22.

For the second time in a week and the third time in four games the Vodafone Warriors were headed to golden point having lost 14-15 to Manly last Saturday and 18-19 to Cronulla on June 25. They'd also gone to extra time earlier in the season against the Sydney Roosters.

The drama wasn't over - only the last act in this astonishing spectacle went against the Vodafone Warriors.

Defending the first set they were managing well - until Jordan Rapana (who had been largely kept in check earlier on) broke up the centre on the fourth tackle. He was stopped just short of the line, the Vodafone Warriors chasing out hard to shut down a last tackle field goal attempt only for the Raiders to find room down their left for captain Jarrod Croker to cap a brilliant individual performance with the match winner, his third try of the night.

Cue heartache for the Vodafone Warriors yet again. It was no consolation to be involved in another remarkable contest.

Vatuvei had started it with a quite exceptional putdown in the 16th minute for his slice of richly-deserved history.

It couldn't help his side to a halftime lead as Canberra scored twice in the final minutes of the spell to go to the break leading 12-4.

And they then added a third - and a second for centre Croker - in the 60th minute when they exploited the short side after possession had been turned over by the Vodafone Warriors off a Lolohea off load.

A fourth followed to Leilua taking them out to a 22-4 lead before Leuluai inspired the Vodafone Warriors' comeback from nowehere.

There had been plenty to like about their early work as they set the tempo, completing sets and going at Canberra up the middle and on both edges.

They probed through Ken Maumalo on the right and went to the left via Solomone Kata. In the 11th minute, the ball went right again, Fusitu'a over off an inside ball from Johnson but the try was rubbed out for an obstruction by decoy runner Bunty Afoa.

If that was a setback it proved temporary, the Vodafone Warriors keeping the heat on through good field position.

They set up for left edge play in the 16th minute, Fusitu'a flicking a long ball to Vatuvei who juggled the ball not once but twice before brilliantly regathering and spectacularly putting the ball down for the opening try of the match - a stunning way to bring up his much-anticipated 150th career touchdown.

Luke's conversion was right on target but fell just short to leave the score 4-0 in the visitors' favour.

Vatuvei went desperately close to a second try soon after only to have the ball knocked out of his right hand as he was reaching out to put the ball down.

The Raiders were forced to soak up so much defensive work but had an opening when a poor dummy half pass to Leuluai was put down.

It gave the Raiders field position and they didn't need a second invitation to make the most of it, the Vodafone Warriors stretched to resist and then unable to prevent Croker scoring off a sweetly placed Adam Sezer grubber. Croker converted to give his side an unlikely 6-4 lead after 36 minutes.

Right on halftime it was stretched to 12-4 when Croker put through a deft grubber, regathered and fed interchange forward Joseph Tapine for a try Croker converted.

Croker's second midway through the second half had the Raiders well placed while the Vodafone Warriors went to their bench, Lolohea coming on, Blake Ayshford off. Another change was forced when Vatuvei left the field with a knee problem with Ayshford coming back on forcing another backline shuffle.

Lolohea provided instant spark but the Raiders upped the intensity, coming at the Vodafone Warriors who couldn't marshal their forces at the other end. When the massive Leilua had the line in view he wasn't going to be stopped.

There was steel in the Vodafone Warriors, though. Plenty of it.

They didn't go away but were so cruelly denied the ultimate glory which would also have appropriately iced the fabulous Vatuvei's 150th try-scoring feat.

If there is honour in defeat there most certainly was tonight. This is one game that will always have a special spot in the Vodafone Warriors' annals.

 

MATCH DETAILS

GIO Stadium, Canberra

Canberra Raiders 26 (Jarrod Croker 3, Joseph Tapine, Joe Leilua tries; Jarrod Croker 3 conversions).

Vodafone Warriors 22  (Thomas Leuluai 2, Manu Vatuvei, David Fusitu'a tries; Issac Luke 3 conversions).

Halftime: 12-4 Raiders.

Referees: Gerard Sutton and Chris James.

Vodafone Warriors | David Fusitu'a; Ken Maumalo, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; James Gavet, Issac Luke, Jacob Lillyman; Bunty Afoa, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Tuimoala Lolohea, Sam Lisone, Jazz Tevaga.