The Vodafone Warriors led all the way to produce a 30-22 victory over NRL premiers the Melbourne Storm in an epic 20th-round NRL clash at Mount Smart Stadium on Sunday.
Playing in front of the biggest crowd at the ground this season - 20,126 - the Vodafone Warriors had to withstand an always-threatening Melbourne before sealing the outcome with Kevin Locke's spectacular late try off a Shaun Johnson bomb.
The result not only maintained the Vodafone Warriors' run to the finals but also enabled them to reclaim the Michael Moore Trophy, which they last held after their unforgettable finals win in Melbourne in 2011.
Theyve now won seven of their last eight matches including victories over three of the top four sides the Sydney Roosters, Melbourne and Manly. Adding in the four points from their two byes, it means the Vodafone Warriors have collected 18 points from a possible 20 in the last 10 weeks to surge from the bottom of the table to sit ninth. They share the same points as eighth-placed Newcastle and are only two behind the three teams occupying fifth, sixth and seventh (Canterbury-Bankstown, Cronulla and Canberra).
They will draw level with the Sharks on 24 points if they beat them at Mount Smart Stadium next Saturday, August 3 (5.00pm kick-off).
The result delivered two notable achievements on both a personal and team level. In the case of the former, the win was the first Matthew Elliott has experienced against Melbourne as an NRL coach; likewise for Vodafone Warriors head strength and conditioning coach Carl Jennings who has been with Elliott throughout his NRL coaching career taking in stints in charge at Canberra, Penrith and now the Vodafone Warriors. On the team level, the Vodafone Warriors had the satisfaction of scoring 30 points against Melbourne for the first time since Melbourne entered the competition in 1998. In the last 15 encounters, the Vodafone Warriors had scored 20 points only once in the 2011 finals victory in Melbourne while overall they had averaged less than 15 points a game across 32 meetings between the two clubs.
The likelihood of this match turning into a comparative points-scoring bonanza was evident from the get-go.
The Vodafone Warriors made a hot start creating tries for Ngani Laumape on the right edge in the third and 12th minutes. The 20-year-old showed tremendous poise to haul in a pass behind him from Konrad Hurrell in scoring his first try.
Stopping to turn to collect the pass he then pirouetted and drove through defenders to get the ball down.
His second was more straightforward, quick hands inside creating space for Simon Mannering to give Laumape a comfortable run-in to score.
Johnson had missed the conversion of Laumapes first try his first failure in 22 attempts but struck the second superbly to give the Vodafone Warriors a critical 10-0 lead against the defending premiers.
The Storm were never likely to be out of the scoring action for long, threatening danger through their Cameron Smith-Cooper Cronk-Billy Slater axis, as they always do.
Desperation on defence stopped the Storm a couple of times before a wonderful Cronk 40/20 kick returned a dividend as Justin ONeill scored to leave the Vodafone Warriors 10-4 ahead. They had openings to build on their score but a Dane Nielsen tackle prevented one try and Hurrell and Locke stopped ONeill from scoring as well.
In the 32nd minute standoff Thomas Leuluai extended the lead to 16-4 when he speared through the heart of Melbournes defence up the middle, extending superbly with his right arm to plant the ball under the bar for a stunning try. Johnson converted and added a penalty for an 18-4 halftime lead.
The margin seemed certain to become 22-4 early in the second half when Johnson was set free by Locke 80 metres out from Melbournes line. In a replay of his long-range effort against Wests Tigers, Johnson tore off down the right-hand touch burning off Slater and looking like he would score only for Will Chambers to come out of the clouds to make a wonderful tackle stopping Johnson just a couple of metres short.
It was the sort of play which invariably turns matches and it did this time, Melbourne shifting through the gears to launch a withering assault. First the Storm went to their right for Slater to score, then they came down the left for Maurice Blair to score to suddenly leave the Vodafone Warriors leading just 18-16 only 10 minutes into the second half.
During this period Mannering produced a stunning try-saving tackle when he ran down Ryan Hoffman and Smith missed a penalty which would have levelled the score up at 18-18.
Instead the Vodafone Warriors turned the match again. With Dominique Peyroux in the centres and Hurrell moved out to the right wing, the Vodafone Warriors again kept the ball alive exceptionally well. Mannering and Peyroux were able to set Hurrell up for his 10th try of the season after 59 minutes, Johnsons conversion taking the score out to 24-16.
It might have become more as the Vodafone Warriors earned an attacking scrum after an uncommon Slater error but instead the Storm turned on the turbo chargers down their right to give Cronk a try, Smith converting to have the score reading 24-22 in favour of the home side with six minutes to play.
Enter Johnson with a floated bomb, landing it right on top of Locke who climbed expertly; he was bumped in flight but still held on as he came crashing down to score the winner.
Statistically the Vodafone Warriors had an edge in execution completing 27 of their 32 sets (84 per cent) compared to Melbournes 23 from 32 (72 per cent). The home side also made only six errors, the Storm 13.
Gaining ground against Melbourne is hard-earned but the Vodafone Warriors had five players who topped the 100-metre mark, Vatuvei with 112 from 10 runs, Sam Rapira 109 from 13, Locke 108 from eight, Ben Matulino 108 from 15 and Hurrell 103 from 13.
What was a memorable performance on a memorable day was laced with emotion, not least when the late Michael Moores daughters presented Mannering with the trophy named in their fathers honour (and fought for every time the two clubs play).
A large contingent of the Moore family was in Auckland for the weekend to unveil a plaque on Princes Wharf commemorating the former Storm manager who died there in 2000. A moving ceremony was held outside Euro last night attended by the Moore family, Melbourne management, the entire Melbourne NRL squad and Vodafone Warriors representatives.
There was more emotion, too, as Vodafone Warriors members and fans immersed themselves in celebrating veteran winger Manu Vatuveis 10th NRL season, the man himself running out onto the field with his daughters Savannah and Makayla.
In less than a week, Mount Smart Stadium will hopefully be a cauldron again when the Vodafone Warriors entertain Cronulla in another clash of immense significance to their years competition.
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At Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 30 (Ngani Laumape 2, Thomas Leuluai, Konrad Hurrell, Kevin Locke tires; Shaun Johnson 4 conversions, penalty).
Melbourne Storm 22 (Justin O'Neill, Billy Slater, Maurice Blair, Cooper Cronk tries; Cameron Smith 3 conversions).
Halftime: 18-4 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Ben Cummins and Henry Perenara.
Vodafone Warriors: Kevin Locke; Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Dane Nielsen, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Jacob Lillyman; Feleti Mateo, Simon Mannering (c); Elijah Taylor. Interchange: Suaia Matagi, Ben Matulino, Todd Lowrie, Dominique Peyroux.