NRL | Winning in Wellington - done!
Few NRL matches have been more remarkable than the one the Vodafone Warriors and Wests Tigers produced in today's fourth-round NRL clash at Westpac Stadium in Wellington.
What mattered most for the Vodafone Warriors, of course, was that they were finally able to look at a winning scoreboard in the Capital after six previous attempts had fallen short.
Better still it was also ultimately convincing as they powered to a 42-18 victory.
But it was the penchant for the remarkable which provided the abiding memories, the tone being set inside the first 10 minutes when three tries could have been scored yet none were.
A teasing kick into the Vodafone Warriors' in-goal in the second minute had Manu Vatuvei second guessing what to do. Would it roll dead? No. Then just as Vatuvei was trying to pick it up Braith Anasta chased through jolted it loose and claimed a try. It took a few replays to determine what had happened before it was declared no try - an Anasta knock-on - and the home side had a tap restart on the 20.
Back the Tigers came a few minutes later, winger David Nofoaluma given room on the outside on a swerving, ducking and diving run towards the line. He reached out to plant the ball. It looked like it could have been a try. Or was it? Upstairs to the video referees it went. They pored over it, spotting ione Lousi's depserate lunge to try to haul Nofoaluma back. He did just enough to stop him getting the ball on the line. Another bullet was dodged.
The Vodafone Warriors had a turn, too. They worked their way downfield well, constructed a nice set and ended it with a sweet Shauin Johnson grubber which Jaysion Bukuya rushed onto for his first try for the club. Or was it? Referee Matt Cecchin thought it was but asked for a second opinion. The footage was checked and, sure enough, it could be seen Bukuya had (barely) bobbled the ball trying to force it. No try again. Three inside 10 minutes.
The match was 18 minutes old when a legitimate try was scored, one that didn't need checking. This time Anasta had a four-pointer and not long after 6-0 would become 12-0 with anither video ref's call. Sam Tomkins was teased by a kick against the garin. He willed it across the dead ball line but it just wouldn't go. Wests Tigers fullback James Tedesco raced through and got downward pressure with just millimetres to spare, Pat Richards converted and the Tigers were out to a healthy lead after 24 minutes.
Injuries played a part in the first half as well, both teams having players replaced.
Veteran Vodafone Warriors centre Jerome Ropati made a try-saving tackle on Tedesco but had to leave the field after collecting what turned out toi be badly broken jaw as a result. Later Tedesco was brave cleaning up a Johnson grubber in his in-goal but took an accidental knock to the head from the chasing Nathan Friend's knee and he too had be taken off.
Inside the last 10 minutes another opening came for the Vodafone Warriors.
Tomkins popped up on the left, Vatuvei had the ball with a glimmer of a chance. He ploughed into and through Nofoaluma and put the ball down. Video ref time yet again. With it came the discovery Nofoaluma had proved enough of a nuisance to force The Beast to step on the touchline.
With six minutes left in the half, all the Vodafone Warriors could do was aim up and go again. They did and they were rewarded with one of the sweetest tries seen.
There were little men galore involved it, from Friend at dummy half, to the returning Thomas Leuluai, Chad Townsend, Johnson and then a beautiful flick on from Tomkins to Konrad Hurrell who put Glen Fisiiahi over for his third try in two games. No referral was needed either. What a relief that was.
Five minutes llater the Vodafone Warriors hit their right edge again. Not as many hands in it this time but slick ball movement for Hurrell to send Fisiiahi in again for his fourth try in two games. The conversions were off target and it looked like halftime would come with the Tigers leading 12-8.
The fact they didn't will become the stuff of rugby league folklore, a wonder of a try which came about literally in the last couple of seconds of the half.
It's too hard to explain. Suffice to say there was a bit of pinball involved as a kick ricocheted, Hurrell found himself with the ball and he carved up the middle, kept the ball alive and somehow out on the left winger Friend had the ball in hand. He poked a kick ahead, the Tigers scrambled to clear it, Dane Nielsen had a go at forcing the loose ball buit missed. Johnson followed through and he got there.
Of course the video referees had to be brought into the equation then. To be fair, there were a few things to look at but it always looked like and felt like a try after a quite exceptional lead-up. Just have a look at the video when you can - and roll it again and again. Amazing? You bet.
Johnson finished it off with a splendid conversion from the sideline and the Vodafone Warriors had gone from 0-12 down to lead 14-12.
Has there been a more remarkable half of rugby league? Arguably not. It was a long half too. With all the video ref intrusions it ran somewhere close to 55 minutes.
The second half initially stayed true to the first half's theme. Of course the video ref was in business as well.
Three minutes in an angled Johnson grubber into the Tigers' in-goal went loose, bounced off Fisiiahi's shins and he tracjed it down force the ball millimetres inside the dead ball line. He had a hat-trick and five tries in two games. Joihnson converted to stretch the lead to 20-12.
Three minutes later the Vodafone Warriors went to the air, there was a flurry of arms in the contest - one of them Vatuvei's - with the ball cannoning off his forehead and towards the dead ball line. He hunted it down and upstairs was the call again. It was checked and checked and checked ... and awarded a try (Vatuvei's 120th career effort). With Johnson's conversion the score was out to 26-12 - 26 unanswered points in 12 minutes - but there was so much left.
The Tigers might have had more injury issues with just two men left oin the bench but they weren't done. The Vodafone Warriors were caught on their heels and the scheming Robbie Farah bagged a try in the 58th minute which, with the conversion, had the Tigers just eight points off the pace at 18-26.
Relief came in the 71st, a feeling of confort that the Vodafone Warriors might possibly be able to celebrate their first win at last in Wellington with Bukuya scoring. No need for referral.
And then it came again in the 74th minute and again in the 76th minute. Tomkins jinked across field, swerved and cut through two defenders ito score - one of them Luke Brooks - before the Vodafone Warriors followed with another special try which owed so much to Hurrell. He burst away, all muscle and power and looked set to score himself but when collared flung out the most audacious pass for Fisiiahi to score his fourth (six tries in two games). With Johnson's conversions the score had blown out to 42-18, cause for Cake Tin to erupt and enjoy a special win and a very special spectacle. They don't come l;ike this very often.
It was some way to mark captain Simon Mannering's club record 92nd match in charge as well as Nielsen's 100th match.
At Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Vodafone Warriors 42 (Glen Fisiiahi 4, Shaun Johnson, Manu Vatuvei, Jayson Bukuya, Sam Tomkins tries; Shaun Johnson 5 conversions).
Wests Tigers 18 (Braith Anasta, James Tedesco, Robbie Farah tries; Pat Richards 3 conversions).
Halftime: 14-12 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Matt Cecchin and Brett Suttor.
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: Jacob Lillyman, Suaia Matagi, Konrad Hurrell, Thomas Leuluai.