NRL: Vodafone Warriors 20, Cowboys 18

Vodafone Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell blasts his way through North Queensland defenders for his side's third try in their win on Sunday. Photo: Photosport.


So many numbers could be used to emphasise the significance of the Vodafone Warriors stress-inducing but ultimately hugely relieving victory over North Queensland in Sundays fourth-round NRL encounter at Mount Smart Stadium.


Theirs had been a story which had consumed the hearts and minds of members, fans and media for weeks and months, which is not to say it hadnt concerned football staff, players, management and all in sundry connected with the club as well.


From those of the glass-half-full mentality, there was always confidence this so-called curse would be ended soon, indeed most likely in this match against the Cowboys.


Those with a grimmer view of the Vodafone Warriors including many claiming to be supporters could see no end to it all.


Come it did, though, around 5.45pm on April Fools Day of all days as a thoroughly brave band of Vodafone Warriors players fought their way gloriously to what should be recorded as one of the clubs more memorable days.


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It was the final instalment of an enthralling football trilogy which began with a 24-24 draw between the Auckland Vulcans and Windsor in the New South Wales Cup, moved onto a 25-6 NYC win for the Vodafone Junior Warriors and wound up with the climax in this pulsating 20-18 win in the NRL contest.


North Queensland would see it differently, of course, for this was a day which ended in a third straight loss for the visiting side. Given the Cowboys are directed by a genius in Johnathan Thurston this seems unimaginable but that matters not to anyone of Vodafone Warriors leanings.


No wonder then that so many numbers were to the forefront when the fulltime siren finally sounded. For it signalled the end of a painful club record 11-match losing streak stretching back to July last year when the Vodafone Warriors last won an NRL match (beating Gold Coast). Those with a keener sense for counting established it had been 268 days since the teams victory song was last belted out in the dressing room; it has rarely been punched out with such gusto as it was this time.


The other statistic being bandied about surrounded the first half performances this season. In the first three games the Vodafone Warriors had failed to score in the first half, down 0-18 to Parramatta, 0-6 to the Roosters and 0-18 to Cronulla. After 38 minutes against the Cowboys the spectre hung over them again with the scoreboard showing the visitors leading 12-0 even though the Vodafone Warriors had troubled them on several occasions.


The crowd numbered only 10,572 for the first game of the season at Mount Smart Stadium, a drastic drop from the 32,000-plus at Eden Park for the battle against the Sydney Roosters two weeks ago.


Although small in number, this group of members and fans was powerful in voice, although patently nervous as the Cowboys worked their way to their advantage.


But then it happened in the 39th minute the breakthrough at last. After a strong Ben Matulino run at the Cowboys line, restored hooker Nathan Friend served it up from dummy half for halfback Shaun Johnson to tease the line and then feed Elijah Taylor a perfect short ball for the back rower to score his first try of the season. With Johnsons conversion, the Vodafone Warriors had scored points in the first half for the first time in 159 minutes.


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Maybe it was just one act, one try, but it proved to be the catalyst for the Vodafone Warriors best half of football in too long.


They needed only five minutes of the second half to level up, standoff Thomas Leuluai dummying to drop off to Todd Lowrie but them linking with Shaun Johnson on his left shoulder. The halfback dummied left, stepped off his left foot, straightened and beat Jason Taumalolo and Matt Bowen on his way to one of those tries he makes so special. Throw in his conversion and it was 12-12.


Seven minutes later the Vodafone Warriors varied the point of their attack when interchange dummy half Pita Godinet went to a short right edge, linking with Leuluai who threw a great ball cutting out Simon Mannering and going straight to a rampaging Konrad Hurrell. He was unstoppable, bulldozing past defenders for a try Johnson converted splendidly from wide out for an 18-12 lead.


The Cowboys threw plenty at the Vodafone Warriors but, with some wonderful scrambling defence, they managed to resist all assaults until Johnson finally gave them breathing space with a late penalty for an eight-point lead.


By this stage the Vodafone Warriors were well down on resources, centre Dane Nielsen out of the contest by halftime with a rib injury, courageous fullback Kevin Locke helped off after a head knock and second rower Ben Henry forced off with the same complaint. Not only were they down to 14 fit players, they also had just one interchange left when Locke and then Henry left the field meaning they had to survive the last eight minutes with only 12 players on the field.


With two minutes left, the eight-point buffer provided by Johnsons penalty immediately became only two points when the Cowboys engineered an Antonio Winterstein try after a short kick-off; time ran out on them, though, and mercifully so for the Vodafone Warriors and their loyal backers.


Good things, its always said, come to those who wait; no one would argue that the Vodafone Warriors hadnt waited long enough.


Afterwards head coach Matt Elliott was rightly chuffed the players had at last broken through to nail the win. His only thoughts were for them and what they had achieved; he was in the moment, not concerned about recounting the injuries and who might or might not be fit to face high-flying unbeaten South Sydney next Sunday. That could wait until after the medical reviews and further assessment during the upcoming week. Fair enough, too.


Sunday was all about absorbing and revelling in a win that had to come.

It was a time for reflecting on a contest which was brimful of intrigue and incident.


Friends comeback from his shoulder surgery was both crucial and beneficial. His distribution was slick and his defensive work rate up to his usual standards with 34 tackles in his 67 minutes on the field. If the attack was much improved, defence was the key factor in the effort with the other big tackle counts coming from Todd Lowrie (41), Simon Mannering (35), Sam Rapira (28) and Taylor (25).


With the ball the Vodafone Warriors were markedly more efficient and effective, their completion rate at 74 per cent (North Queensland only 65 per cent) while they made 1452 metres. The second half was the most telling when they completed 15 of 20 sets (75 per cent) compared to the Cowboys nine from 17 (53 per cent); they made 814 metres to 621 and missed only nine tackles to the visitors 20. The overall ineffective tackle count was also markedly in the home sides favour at 6-17.


There were also good numbers from individuals with the ball, wingers Bill Tupou and Ngani Laumape especially effective. Tupou made 161 metres from 17 runs (both game-high numbers) and Laumape with 131 metres from 11 runs after his players player of the day performance on debut against Cronulla. Mannering made 128 metres from 14 carries, Matulino 117 from 11, Locke 99 from 13, Lowrie 98 from 14 and Jacob Lillyman 97 from 12 (Locke, it should be stressed, also came up with a string of vital defensive plays, not the least snuffing out a North Queensland would-be try-scoring raid late in the second half). Critical, too, was Johnsons pinpoint goal kicking as he nailed four goals from four attempts.


This was a night when the Vodafone Warriors got a big monkey off their back and a few others to boot. Now they will need to quickly refocus to take on South Sydney next Sunday in what will be another tripleheader special, the NRL match kicking off at 4.00pm.


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Match details:


At Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland

Vodafone Warriors 20 (Elijah Taylor, Shaun Johnson, Konrad Hurrell tries; Shaun Johnson 3 conversions, penalty).

North Queensland Cowboys 18 (Kalifa Faifai Loa, Brent Tate, Antonio Winterstein tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 conversions, penalty).

Halftime: 12-6 Cowboys.

Referees: Gavin Badger and Henry Perenara.


Vodafone Warriors: Kevin Locke; Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Dane Nielsen, Bill Tupou; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Jacob Lillyman; Feleti Mateo, Simon Mannering (c); Todd Lowrie. Interchange: Elijah Taylor, Ben Matulino, Ben Henry, Pita Godinet.