Utter commitment and boundless courage on defence carried the Vodafone Warriors to a famous 20-16 victory over North Queensland at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday night.
When they needed it most the players found a deep supply of the resolve that had been missing in their first two matches to grind out their first success in Townsville since 2002.
It was all the more remarkable due to the time difference – Queensland is three hours behind New Zealand – the players not only started the match at 11.00pm on Saturday NZT but finished it close to 1.00am on Sunday NZT.
Adding to their adversity was losing in-form prop Ben Matulino in the opening minutes after a collision with Tariq Sims and James Tamou left him with a head wound. It meant the Vodafone Warriors had to operate for the best part of 60 minutes with only three interchange options.
The win could scarcely have come at a more critical time following the first-up losses to Parramatta and St George Illawarra. In each of those matches there was united disappointment among the coaching staff and players about the absence of the physical competiveness needed to grind out success.
It wasn't in question this time as the Vodafone Warriors muscled up time and time again, scrambling to protect their line and deny the Cowboys clear cut scoring chances.
There were so many critical saves as the Cowboys came surging back into the match with a last quarter rush. They'd been 6-20 down before recovering with tries to fullback Michael Morgan in the 66th minute and winger Kyle Feldt in the 75th minute.
Along the way powerhouse back rower Tariq Sims hurtled towards the line with just one outcome in the offing, at least for the locals and the North Queensland players. Miraculously, though, Sam Tomkins and Manu Vatuvei somehow denied Sims, fighting with all they had to stop him getting the ball down.
The way the match was running in the final stages it was fair to believe the cards were in the North Queenslanders' favour as they searched for a match-winner.
With three minutes on the clock, Scott Bolton had a scoring opportunity until Chad Townsend arrived to help out and, in a flurry of arms, the ball squeezed loose. No try but, after deliberation from the video referees, it was decreed Townsend, in dislodging the ball from Bolton's grasp, had knocked on.
Scrum to the Cowboys. They set up for their right edge with Johnathan Thurston calling the tune. Thurston generated hesitation in the defensive line creating space for Feldt on the touchline. He set sail for the corner, Vatuvei scrambling across to try to force him wide and hopefully into touch. Feldt crossed and thought he'd scored, so did his team-mates and the whole stadium. Not the touch judge, though. He'd spotted Feldt planting his foot on the touchline and immediately made the call. There was no review and replays showed the decision was spot on.
With just a minute to go it should have been game, set and match. Only as the Vodafone Warriors rucked the ball out from the resulting scrum they erred, failed to play the ball properly and the Cowboys had one last scrum and one last chance to steal the result. Mercifully it didn't happen. Centre Kane Linnett knocked on and the Vodafone Warriors could celebrate their first win of the season and their first in Townsville in 12 years, one mixed with a sense of relief and redemption.
Earlier on the decision to bring Konrad Hurrell back paid an instant dividend, only the bullocking Tongan wasn't employed in the centres but instead as a back rower.
He was injected in the second half as the forwards began to tire in the sapping conditions, immediately making ground up the middle and then scoring a vital 55th-minute try beside the posts off a flat ball from Nathan Friend out of dummy half.
Seven minutes later Sione Lousi, who started the match, also went over from close range as the Vodafone Warriors opened the Cowboys up on their goal-line. That try completed a Tongan sweep of the Vodafone Warriors’ four tries after winger Glen Fisiiahi had snared a double in the space of 10 minutes in the first half.
Shaun Johnson couldn’t convert either try from wide out but it was still enough for the much-improved Vodafone Warriors to lead 8-6 at halftime, stretching to a 14-point advantage midway through the second half before the Cowboys organised their comeback.
For prop Jacob Lillyman there was special satisfaction savouring his first win in Townsville against his old club. He was just one of the players suffering from cramp at the end but by then he had made another massive contribution to the team. He clocked up 160 metres from 15 runs and also made 24 tackles while front row partner Sam Rapira was exceptional all night as he carted the ball 173 metres from 17 runs and made 24 tackles.
Captain Simon Mannering – who led the side for a club record-equalling 91st time – finished with 118 metres from 13 runs and 24 tackle while Feleti Mateo (108 metres) and Suaia Matagi (103 metres) also topped 100 metres. Heading the tackle count again was Nathan Friend with 46.
Back on deck, Vatuvei underlined his value as ever with 127 metres from 14 runs and Hurrell’s explosiveness was reflected in eight power-packed runs netting 81 metres.
The crucial number in the team statistics was the Vodafone Warriors’ completion rate of 35 from 43 sets (81 per cent) while the Cowboys managed only 28 from 40 (70 per cent). Their kicking game was also superior, 25 kicks for a gain of 659 metres as well as forcing four goal-line drop outs.
The Vodafone Warriors arrive home later this afternoon, have a recovery day tomorrow and then begin their preparation for next Saturday night’s clash against the in-form Wests Tigers at Westpac Stadium in Wellington (5.05pm kick-off; match day sponsor: Vodafone).
A tripleheader football programme is again in store with the Vodafone Junior Warriors launching the action with their NYC clash against the Tigers (12.40pm kick-off), followed by the Vodafone Warriors facing the Tigers in the New South Wales Cup (2.40pm).
At 1300SMILES Stadium, Townsville
North Queensland Cowboys 16 (Antonio Wintertsein, Michael Morgan, Kyle Feldt tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 conversions).
Vodafone Warriors 20 (Glen Fisiiahi 2, Konrad Hurrell, Sione Lousi tries; Shaun Johnson 2 conversions).
Halftime: 8-6 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Ashley Klein and Adam Gee.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Glen Fisiiahi, Dane Nielsen, Jerome Ropati, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Shaun Johnson; Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Ben Matulino; Jayson Bukuya, Simon Mannering (c); Sione Lousi. Interchange: Feleti Mateo, Jacob Lillyman, Suaia Matagi, Konrad Hurrell.