After facing all manner of pressure after one of the club's most difficult weeks, the Vodafone Warriors ended it by suffering a heartbreaking 20-21 loss to Canterbury-Bankstown in today's sixth-round NRL match at Eden Park.
The contest could scarcely have had a more shattering finish after the Vodafone Warriors tried in vain to defend a precarious 20-18 lead with seven minutes left.
Critically a debatable penalty call changed the course of the game and certainly incurred the wrath of the Eden Park crowd of 22,165.
Trent Hodkinson gleefully snared the two points to lock the game up at 20-20.
There was time to reclaim the lead but, when the Vodafone Warriors had an opening a few minutes later, Thomas Leuluai’s rushed field goal attempt sprayed right.
There was no such mistake when the Bulldogs trucked back down the other end to give Hodkinson a shot at glory. He grabbed it and the Vodafone Warriors were left crestfallen after fighting so gamely to rectify the many wrongs in last week’s performance against the Sharks.
Ultimately Hodkinson's precision goal kicking marked the difference, the Vodafone Warriors scoring four tries to three but Hodkinson kicking everything in sight for the Bulldogs.
This was a match high on intensity, drama and incident from the get-go although the opening set didn't begin so well for the home side courtesy of a refereeing blunder (if not as costly as the highly contentious call at the end).
Ben Matulino, starting in the second row for the first time since 2010, was ruled to have lost possession when replays indicated a strip. It was too late. The knock-on call had been made on the field and couldn’t be reversed.
No matter, the Vodafone Warriors defended the error and then set about settling into the game.
The early gains were all theirs as they rolled down the field effectively and, in the ninth minute, they earned a reward.
It came when the Vodafone Warriors went left, Matulino denting the line and getting a sweet offload away to Thomas Leuluai on his hip. He darted clear and there backing up inside in a throwback to times together at Wigan was fullback Sam Tomkins. He finished it off with his second NRL try in as many games at Eden Park and a spectacular one at that. Shaun Johnson's conversion opened up a 6-0 lead.
Having started well there was then a lapse. The restart wasn't covered, went dead and the Vodafone Warriors were left defending their line rather than putting more pressure on the Bulldogs.
Anxiety levels went up as the Bulldogs went to their right with winger Corey Thompson given some room to work with. He seemed set to score until Tomkins and Leuluai teamed up to dislodge the ball as he was attempting to score.
A searing Johnson break initiated the second strike. Spinning in contact he broke clear on an angled run; when the support was too far away he took the tackle. It was the last but the Bulldogs carelessly conceded a penalty for holding Johnson down for too long.
With the gift of a repeat set they went at the Dogs again rather than taking the two points on offer. The left edge was again the preferred route, Matulino influential once more as he shelled out an offload to centre Dane Nielsen. He couldn't take it cleanly but flicked it on out the back, winger Manu Vatuvei collecting the scraps and running through a gaping alley to score his 122nd career try. Johnson's conversion missed after hitting an upright to make it 10-0 after 27 minutes.
Almost immediately lost possession inside their own half meant the Vodafone Warriors faced another shift trying to protect their line and this time they couldn't make the tackles stick as fullback Sam Perrett penetrated and charged through to score. Hodkinson converted to cut the Vodafone Warriors' lead to 10-6.
There it stayed until halftime but before the break arrived the Vodafone Warriors suffered a major blow when Matulino was forced off with a chest injury. He didn't seem comfortable at all. Also out of commission for the day was loose forward Sebastine Ikahihifo who was unable to return from a head knock.
Far more comfortable was the golden start to the second spell by the now under-manned Vodafone Warriors.
This time they fed their right side, Leuluai hoisting a cross-field bomb which was batted back and the human bulldozer Konrad Hurrell did the rest to sciore his 27th career, Johnson again unable to convert leaving his side 14-6 ahead.
Five minutes later the lead was down to two points. Vatuvei lost a swirling, spiral bomb and the Vodafone Warriors couldn't hold the Bulldogs out on the repeat set, Tony Williams strolling across off a Josh Reynolds ball. With Hodkinson's conversion it was 14-12 with 30 minutes to play.
Since the start of the match this had been a classic NRL arm wrestle. Now it stepped up to the next level.
The Bulldogs were first to relent, the Vodafone Warriors going eight points clear in the 58th minute through a spectacular - and highly popular - try to captain Simon Mannering. Having just committed himself to the club until the end of the 2018 season, Mannering chased down a Johnson grubber brilliantly, getting his hand on the ball millimetres short of the dead ball. Johnson's conversion had the score reading 20-12 with 22 minutes to play.
The Bulldogs were never going to disappear, not after the way they had performed in their previous two outings against Melbourne and the Sydney Roosters but the way they were able to hit back was galling in the extreme for the Vodafone Warriors.
They were hot on attack, pressing for an opportunity to go 12 or perhaps 14 points clear. Instead a loose pass popped into Hodkinson's hands; he broke away 60 metres up-field but was rounded up by Ngani Laumape. With men over the Bulldogs went right and Tim Lafai had an easy try. Hodkinson, kicking immaculately, converted to leave the sides just two points apart with 13 minutes to play.
That score-line of 20-18 became 20-20 with six minutes to play with Hodkinson’s penalty - after the unpopular call against Tomkins - and then, agonisingly 21-20 with a Hodkinson field goal three minutes from time.
A tough week had ended cruelly in heartbreak but the Vodafone Warriors had gained glory in defeat.
At Eden Park, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 20 (Sam Tomkins, Manu Vatuvei, Konrad Hurrell, Simon Mannering tries; Shaun Johnson 2 conversions).
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 21 (Sam Perrett, Tony Williams, Tim Lafai tries; Trent Hodkinson 3 conversions, penalty, field goal).
Halftime: 10-6 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Ben Cummins and Brett Suttor.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Ngani Laumape, Dane Nielsen, Konrad Hurrell, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Jacob Lillyman; Ben Matulino, Simon Mannering (c); Sebastine Ikahihifo. Interchange: Suaia Matagi, Dominique Peyroux, Charlie Gubb, Siliva Havili.