NRL | Heroes on Anzac Day
Courage may seem a questionable word on a day when New Zealanders and Australians remember their war heroes but the Vodafone Warriors produced more than their quota of bravery in holding out Melbourne for a famous 16-10 Anzac Day victory at AAMI Park on Saturday night.
This was a triumph which owed everything to the shoulder to shoulder combat the Vodafone Warriors were forced into to protect their line in an enthralling finals-like contest.
They led 12-6 at halftime and just 12-10 only four minutes into the second half as the Storm bombarded them with the heaviest artillery they could muster.
From somewhere - and somehow - the Vodafone Warriors summoned unbelievable resolve to absorb and repel everything the Storm threw their way in what became the ultimate arm wrestle.
They've been to these places against the Storm before and did it again now. After 20 minutes of resistance finally they had their chance to put the heat on, created a quite brilliant try for Shaun Johnson and then held on exceptionally to earn their third win of the season and retain the Michael Moore Trophy they won at Mount Smart Stadium last July.
The success came on another memorable night for the two rivals.
The burgeoning standing of their traditional Anzac Day occasion - and it is an occasion - was underlined by the massive crowd packed into AAMI Park, a record for the Storm of 28,000-plus.
The Vodafone Warriors put together solid opening sets, mounting pressure through a Shaun Johnson bomb which gave Ben Henry a slim chance of making it to their line.
Having settled into the tempo the Vodafone Warriors then undid their good early work by turning the ball over after a penalty.
It gave the Storm position and soon a repeat set from a resulting penalty after what was deemed to be a late charge on Melbourne standoff Ben Hampton.
Melbourne threatened but the danger was not only averted but a precarious predicament was quickly transformed into a profitable one. Feeding off back-to-back penalties, the Vodafone Warriors rolled downfield and went to their right where new centre Ben Henry off-loaded and winger David Fusitu'a went the airborne route to score his first NRL try in spectacular fashion in the 10th minute.
Johnson couldn't convert but from that moment on the Vodafone Warriors began to dictate terms, certainly in terms of position if not points initially.
The opportunities created inside the Storm's 20 suggested the Vodafone Warriors ought to have had more points on the board. They weren't coming but there was no overt sign of frustration either as the Vodafone Warriors stuck to their plan and kept mounting pressure.
In the 28th minute it paid off as the Vodafone Warriors forced another goal-line drop out and found pay-dirt as Simon Mannering shelled a short ball to his left in front of the posts, interchange forward Mateo staggering towards the line to dot down under the bar. Johnson's conversion had his side out to 10-0 and well worth the advantage.
Instead of building on it, though, the Vodafone Warriors gave back some of their hard-won gains by yielding a try to Melbourne second rower Kevin Proctor two minutes from halftime, Cameron Smith converting to leave the Storm only four points adrift.
In the build-up to the try the Storm suffered a significant setback on the injury front with centre Justin O'Neill forced off with a suspected fractured tibia.
Right on halftime the Vodafone Warriors had the chance to take a six-point lead with a penalty from a handy position, Johnson drawing the kick inside the right-hand upright for a 12-6 lead. On the run of play it might have been more but the Vodafone Warriors had certainly put together their most impressive half of the season so far.
The second half began indifferently for the Vodafone Warriors with Melbourne striking early with a Young Tonumaipea try in the opening minutes. Smith couldn’t convert but Melbourne was now sniffing just two points adrift and putting on all the heat by forcing back-to-back goal-line drop outs.
The Vodafone Warriors were also down to 16 fit players with winger Manu Vatuvei taken off at halftime with a leg injury.
Playing a high-paced brand of football built around slick passing and brilliant off-loading, the Storm were stretching the Vodafone Warriors on both edges. It seemed they might have cracked them when Billy Slater pierced the line only to plant the ball short of the line in the act of trying to score the go-ahead four-pointer (due in no small way to desperation on defence by Mannering and Jacob Lillyman).
Siliva Havili was thrown into the fray to try to inject some energy into a side under the pump in the face of repeat sets on defence.
Soon the Vodafone Warriors faced more back-to-back sets after the Storm engineered a fourth goal-line drop out. Melbourne had so much possession and position and seemed destined to score – until Cooper Cronk, of all players, made an error on a cute play.
From the relieving set the Vodafone Warriors were able to escape into Melbourne territory for the first time in an age. They simply had to keep believing and hanging in.
They did and the belief was repaid with a wonderful effort featuring slick hands, changes in the point of attack including a critical play from Sebastine Ikahihifo, heavy involvement from Johnson and ultimately a brilliant try to the playmaker in the 64th minute. He really needed to convert it but his attempt hit the right upright and stayed out. At 16-10 there was still nothing in this humdinger of a contest.
The Vodafone Warriors tried to position themselves for a one-pointer but couldn’t make it stick, Johnson either hunted down or unable to get a good strike on the ball. It meant the Storm still had the chance of an escape as the game went inside the last five minutes.
The Vodafone Warriors lost two more men, winger Fusitu’a and prop Sam Rapira both out of action.
The Storm won a penalty on defence, the chance to go down the other end and take the game into extra time. They forced another goal-line drop out, the fifth of the half, with a little less than a minute left. One set and it would be the Vodafone Warriors’ victory. They aimed up, escorted a hopeful last tackle kick across the dead-ball line and it was time to celebrate for a troop of Vodafone Warriors soldiers who had fought to the bitter end.
As the winning coach Andrew McFadden - also marking his first win as an NRL coach - had to select the winner of the Anzac Medal awarded to the player who best typified the Anzac spirit through his performance. McFadden was spoilt for contenders but from his platoon he singled out the tough back rower Ikahihifo.
The Vodafone Warriors flew home on Saturday with many of their number set to be on representative duty next weekend. The club's next game is their fourth home fixture of the season against the Canberra Raiders at Eden Park on May 10. After this display it can't come soon enough.
At AAMI Park, Melbourne
Melbourne Storm 10 (Kevin Proctor, Young Tonumaipea tries; Cameron Smith conversion).
Vodafone Warriors 16 (David Fusitu'a, Feleti Mateo, Shaun Johnson tries; Shaun Johnson conversion, penalty).
Halftime: 12-6 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Ashley Klein and Adam Gee.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; David Fusitu'a, Ben Henry, Ngani Laumape, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsendi, Shaun Johnson; Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Jacob Lillyman; Jayson Bukuya, Simon Mannering (c); Sebastine Ikahihifo. Interchange: Siliva Havili, Suaia Matagi, Feleti Mateo, Konrad Hurrell.