An exceptional crowd of 30,112 packed the stadium a record for a rugby league match in Wellington and had to wait only five minutes for the Vodafone Warriors to make their opening statement.
Playing the game at tempo, they went to their left edge where Feleti Mateo poked through a delicate grubber. It ricocheted off legs, enabling returning fullback Glen Fisiiahi to collect the loose ball and connect with Manu Vatuvei in support, the big man going in for his fourth try of the season and the 106th of his career. Johnson couldnt convert but the Vodafone Warriors had made a fast start with their earliest try of the season.
It was better still 12 minutes later when the Vodafone Warriors executed perfectly in front of the Bulldogs posts. Todd Lowrie tipped on to Russell Packer, who spun and then popped up a sweet off load for Thomas Leuluai to score his first try of this campaign, in fact his first for the club since he scored against Brisbane in the opening match of the 2004 season, his last before moving to the English Super League.
With Johnson converting this time for a 10-0 lead, there was a good deal of composure about the Vodafone Warriors work through this period, a good beginning becoming a great one in the 30th minute when they uncorked their best try of the season so far.
With a deep line and slick ball movement from inside their half, they freed up Carlos Tuimavave on the left edge. He penetrated into the Bulldogs half before setting Vatuvei loose, the big man floating a pass infield for Fisiiahi to race away for what soon became a 16-0 lead with Johnsons conversion.
The Bulldogs have plenty of weapons, though, and when they were given the benefit of a highly contentious six-again call, they had a golden chance. Frank Pritchard surged towards the line, got a late off load away on the inside and Michael Ennis scored his sides first try of the night. With Trent Hodkinsons conversion, the gap was closed to 10 points, where it stayed until the halftime break.
While the teams were in the sheds, match sponsor Vodafone came out to play, staging a dazzling Red Out as the thousands of spectators in the crowd brandished red cards above their heads making for a spectacular sight from a helicopter shot high about the venue (Vodafone Warrior Sione Lousi was on board the chopper).
The Bulldogs lifted their intensity the moment the second half started, exceptional defence needed by Packer as he back-tracked to make a try-saving tackle.
But with repeat sets handing them territory and possession, the Bulldogs almost inevitably profited. The weight of the stats said they would and they did when numbers allowed them to put right winger Sam Perrett in wide out. Hodkinsons conversion was superb.
At 16-12 the Vodafone Warriors were under the pump with possession stats and tackling numbers stacking up against them. Now the grind was really on and for a long period they were right up for it.
With 13 minutes to go there was an opportunity as Leuluai punched a grubber through the Bulldogs line but the ball bounced up too high for the chasing Vatuvei to grasp. Had he done so it may very well have been try-time again.
The defining moment came in the 72nd minute when Fisiiahi was floored by Ennis when trying to take a bomb. The ball actually bounced off Ennis head, going loose in-goal where Johnson was forced to take it dead for a goal-line dropout. The evidence showed Ennis was never contesting the kick, set only on taking Fisiiahi out and making contact with his head.
There was no redress, though, and from the resulting repeat set the electric Ben Barba scored wide out despite suggestions of obstruction in the lead-up which went unsupported by the video referee. Hodkinsons conversion was again brilliant to put the Bulldogs in front 18-16 with five minutes to play.
As the Vodafone Warriors pressed for a late winner, a pass went loose and a retreating Josh Reynolds scooped it up, tearing 60 metres downfield for the match-sealing try.
Once again the Vodafone Warriors had been edged late in a match they had contributed so much to but would reflect on a second half in which they were unable to score.
Included in the side for the first time and becoming Vodafone Warrior No 181 was 25-year-old prop Suaia Matagi. He replaced Sam Rapira who was still being troubled by the hand injury he picked up against Gold Coast. Matagi came onto the bench with local boy Ben Matulino starting.
There was a change in the centres with Carlos Tuimavave coming in for his first NRL match of the year with Konrad Hurrell dropping out of the final 17.
The Vodafone Warriors depart from Wellington on Sunday morning to prepare for their 10th-round clash against Penrith at Centrebet Stadium next Saturday night.
At Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Vodafone Warriors 16 (Manu Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai, Glen Fisiiahi tries; Shaun Johnson 2 conversions).
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 24 (Michael Ennis, Sam Perrett, Ben Barba, Josh Reynolds tries; Trent Hodkinson 4 conversions).
Halftime: 16-6 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Adam Devcich and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors: Glen Fisiiahi; Bill Tupou, Ben Henry, Carlos Tuimavave, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Ben Matulino, Nathan Friend, Russell Packer; Feleti Mateo, Simon Mannering (c); Todd Lowrie. Interchange: Jacob Lillyman, Elijah Taylor, Pita Godinet, Suaia Matagi.