Wests Tigers ended the Auckland Vulcans title quest at the first hurdle with a 34-24 win in todays New South Wales Cup elimination final at Remondis Stadium in Cronulla.
While conceding points too readily at times, the Vulcans still werent without hope as they made a tilt at running the Tigers down in the final quarter.
With 19 minutes left they were looking at an 18-point deficit afetr the Tigers went out to a 30-12 lead with their sixth try of the afternoon.
It wasnt a desirable position to be in but nor was it daunting for the Vulcans. Proof positive was provided in the 68th minute when they gave themselves a shot as prop Suaia Matagi stormed over for his second try.
With Ngani Laumapes conversion it was 18-30 with 11 minutes left.
And then from the restart they rumbled downfield and went in again as centre Sio Siua Taukeiaho matched Matagi with a brace. Laumapes conversion was good once again and now it truly was game on at 24-30 heading into the last 10 minutes.
Crucially, though, possession was turned over as the Vulcans took aim at a third try in quick succession. They couldnt defend the error and the Tigers found a seventh try to centre Rory Brien although yet another missed Sean Meaney conversion left the door open with the lead just 10 points.
With their renowned ability to score points quickly no one discounted the possibility of the Vulcans stealing the game. They had opportunities, too, but the passes wouldnt stick in the final stanza, the nervous Tigers holding on to win to stay alive (the two regular season meetings between the two sides had finished up 1-1 with two-point margins in both cases).
The Vulcans had opened up confidently with the first points when Matagi charged over muscularly off a short ball but the first half was largely forgettable as they yielded points too freely. A critical blow was a try right on halftime which left them 6-22 down at the break.
The second half salvage mission began well when Taukeiaho scored his first try just two minutes into the spell, Laumapes conversion leaving the Vulcans only 10 points behind at 12-22.
Unfortunately the comeback was short-lived as Tigers second rower Asipeli Fine scored his second try and the margin was out to 14 points and then 18 points in the 59th minute before the fight-back.
Meaneys indifferent goal-kicking helped immeasurably in keeping the Vulcans in contact but ultimately they were left with a little too much to do.
They had the satisfaction of returning to finals football after last appearing in the top eight in 2011. Along the way they became the first team to inflict defeat on a Cronulla side which had put together 15 straight wins to that point. They could also reflect on an unforgettable comeback to beat Newcastle after the final siren had sounded in a remarkable clash in May; it set off a run of four straight wins which lifted them right back into the finals frame.
In the end the Vulcans had at least one victory over every other top eight side except third-placed North Sydney but couldnt find another one today.
At Remondis Stadium, Cronulla
(6) Auckland Vulcans 24 (Suaia Matagi 2, Sio Siua Taukeiaho 2 tries; Ngani Laumape 4 conversions).
(7) Wests Tigers 34 (Asipeli Fine 2, Jack Madden, Inno Inosesio, Sean Meaney, Jarred Farlow, Rory Brien tries; Sean Meaney 3 conversions).
Halftime: 22-6 Tigers.
Referee: Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski.
Vulcans: Tangi Ropati; Ngani Laumape, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Atelea Nafetalai, Viliami Lolohea; Steve Waetford, Pita Godinet; Suaia Matagi, Siliva Havili, Charlie Gubb; John Palavi, Sebastine Ikahihifo; Murray Iti. Interchange: Aaron Nootai, Herman Retzlaff, Nathaniel Peteru, Agnatius Paasi.