The Vodafone Warriors produced their best football of the season in a rollicking, record 54-12 rout of Canberra in Saturday night’s ninth-round NRL clash at Eden Park.
They not only nailed their first win in six attempts at Eden Park - and made it back-to-back wins for the second time this season - but they delivered an irresistible display which saw the Raiders ship more than 50 points for the second game running.
Indeed with their 18-54 loss to Manly two weeks ago and this one to the Vodafone Warriors they have haemorrhaged 108 points in consecutive matches.
The Vodafone Warriors weren't worried about that; they were more concerned about a performance which has seen them win two of their four matches since Andrew McFadden took over as acting head coach.
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While there was a huge step forward against Canberra in their execution in possession, it’s the improvement in the side’s effort and effectiveness on defence which has been the most critical since McFadden was handed the reins.
In the first five games this season the Vodafone Warriors leaked 138 points – an average of almost 28 a game – but in the last five they’ve allowed only 63, down to an average of less than 16 a game.
Boosted by the 54 points harvested on Saturday night, the Vodafone Warriors have averaged 25 points in the last four games, up from around 19 a game in the first five.
The contrast in the last two wins couldn’t have been more marked going from the hard-earned 16-10 Anzac Day win over Melbourne to the freewheeling success at Eden Park.
The Vodafone Warriors hit the execution button from the outset and rarely lapsed throughout the 80 minutes.
Off the back of the first penalty of the match they had good shape to their left in front of Canberra’s posts, Nathan Friend feeding Chad Townsend, Suaia Matagi running a great line as the decoy and Townsend shifting a nice pass behind to a charging Ben Matulino.
Matulino’s last outing since his two-game suspension was also at Eden Park against the Bulldogs when, in his first game as head coach, McFadden switched him to his old second row spot. On that day he was the key provider in a left edge move which ended in a try for Sam Tomkins. This time he was the beneficiary as a superbly-executed set play gave him a saloon passage to the line for his first try of the season with Tomkins on his left shoulder.
The match was just three minutes old, Shaun Johnson nailed the conversion and a fast start was soon transformed into a sizzling performance against a shell-shocked Raiders side.
If Matulino’s try was a quality statement the next strike just minutes later was the moment of the evening. When the ball spewed loose in contact Johnson collected and flicked a pass right to a Tongan truck known as Konrad Hurrell.
He’d been in focus for unwanted reasons earlier in the week but now he had the chance to make everyone watch his football do the talking.
Minutes earlier he’d run through a guard of honour formed by players’ mothers and partners. Among them was his mother, who arrived in Auckland late in the week from Tonga ahead of Mother’s Day.
Hurrell stopped to give her a hug but there were no niceties as he took on the Canberra defence – or what there was of it – in the seventh minute. With Canberra’s left edge jamming in, Hurrell carved around Jarrod Crocker and Bill Tupou on a thrilling 60-metre surge to the line, carrying a hapless Anthony Milford with him for a sensational try. This time the trademark kiss for mum found its target in the stadium rather than back home.
Soon after Hurrell rattled Croker with a thunderous tackle on a night when he would leave his imprint everywhere, running 227 metres from 13 bullocking carries with nine tackle breaks, three line breaks, a try assist and no errors.
There was no real let-up from the Vodafone Warriors after the Matulino-Hurrell double strike.
A lead of 12-0 became 18-0 after Johnson played thief in the night stealing an intercept try off Canberra hooker Glen Buttriss; a momentary lapse allowed the Raiders to score but by halftime it was 24-6 after an outstanding set piece play directly off a scrum on the left. From the base Friend fed to Tomkins who ghosted wide, Hurrell ran a block and out the back it went to Johnson to feed Ngani Laumape for his first try of the season. Johnson’s sideline conversion was spot on again.
Johnson again played the poacher’s role perfectly in the opening minutes of the second half. Terry Campese’s bomb to the left was batted back, bounced loose – and straight into Johnson’s hands who raced 90 metres to score. At 30-6 the Vodafone Warriors weren’t about to have any wobbles.
Just three minutes later they attacked from long range, Johnson mesmerising Canberra’s left edge as he dented the line and slipped an offload to Laumape. Hemmed in right on the touchline he flicked a one-handed pass back infield where High Voltage blue jerseys were there in numbers. The nearest were second rower Jayson Bukuya and Tomkins, Bukuya laying it for Tomkins to score another quality try.
Left winger Manu Vatuvei had started the contest indifferently but he became the next to leave his mark. The Vodafone Warriors set up on a short side near the line, Friend serving it up to Tomkins who cut out Townsend and Ben Henry to give the big man his sixth try of the season.
In the 64th minute the Vodafone Warriors attacked from well out on the fourth tackle, going to a short side on the right where Tomkins stunningly flicked on a Johnson pass to none other than Hurrell. He stormed through a hole, kicking clear and fed Bukuya inside for try number eight. It had quality all over it again with Tomkins’ touch something to behold.
He was at it again on the left edge for his side’s last try, flicking the ball on in a blink for Henry to put Vatuvei in for his second try of the night.
There was some disappointment for the Vodafone Warriors when they yielded a late try but there was still much to celebrate as the players did a lap of honour thanking the fans after history had been made in a most emphatic way.
Johnson finished the match with 26 points from two tries and nine goals from nine attempts matching the 26 he’d scored the last time the Vodafone Warriors played the Raiders at Mount Smart Stadium (both times coming within two of the club record of 28 points in a match).
The 42-point winning margin eclipsed the 34-point one in last year’s 50-16 win. Between them Johnson and Vatuvei have accounted for 72 of the 104 points scored in those two matches.
The result means the Vodafone Warriors, on eight points with a four wins-five losses record, have climbed to 10th spot on the table level with the current eighth-placed North Queensland (although Penrith, St George Illawarra and Parramatta are all on eight points and are yet to play).
They’ve come out of their four home games at Eden Park and Westpac Stadium with historic wins at both venues, and big ones as well (beating Wests Tigers 42-18 in Wellington last month).
The focus now switches to their designated away clash against the Bulldogs at Waikato Stadium next Sunday, a road trip to Gold Coast and then their first home game of the year at Mount Smart Stadium against Newcastle on June 1.
It kicks off phase two of the 2014 campaign when eight of the Vodafone Warriors’ 12 games from June to the last weekend in August will all be played at Mount Smart Stadium. After Newcastle, the remaining seven home games are against Brisbane, Penrith, Parramatta, Manly, Cronulla, the Sydney Roosters and Gold Coast. The only away games during that period are against South Sydney in Perth, Brisbane, Canberra and Newcastle.
At Eden Park, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 54 (Shaun Johnson 2, Manu Vatuvei 2, Ben Matulino, Konrad Hurrell, Ngani Laumape, Sam Tomkins, Jayson Bukuya tries; Shaun Johnson 9 conversions).
Canberra Raiders 12 (Jarrod Croker 2 tries, 2 conversions).
Halftime: 24-6 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Gavin Morris and Henry Perenara.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Ben Henry, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Shaun Johnson; Suaia Matagi, Nathan Friend, Jacob Lillyman; Jayson Bukuya, Ben Matulino; Simon Mannering (c). Interchange: Sebastine Ikahihifo, Feleti Mateo, Sione Lousi, Kevin Locke.