Simon Mannering turned into 'Captain Fantastic' when he scored a first half double to drive the Vodafone Warriors to a superb 38-18 win in today's 12th-round NRL clash against Newcastle at Mount Smart Stadium.
In his 200th game and his 100th as captain, Mannering's first try was almost all his own work while Feleti Mateo's soft hands played a key role in the captain's second right on halftime.
While the Vodafone Warriors allowed Newcastle to close within four points early in the second half they sealed the deal with second half tries to standoff Chad Townsend, centre Konrad Hurrell and a second for the match for winger Manu Vatuvei.
Their sixth win of the season - giving them a six wins-six losses record at the halfway stage of the campaign - ensures they stay just on the edge of the top eight.
The stage was set for this to be a truly memorable occasion, an expectant crowd of 19,000-plus in the house with the homecoming feeling buzzing around Mount Smart Stadium. Earlier victories over the Knights by the club's New South Wales Cup side (34-12) and the NYC team (34-22) had added further lustre to the day.
The players from the NYC and New South Wales Cup teams formed a guard of honour for the man of the moment, Mannering being greeted by a wall of sound as he headed onto the field.
The early script didn't go according to plan, though, when Newcastle, feasting on a repeat set, engineered a try for Tyrone Roberts via the aerial route. Josh Mantellato, in the side for Akuila Uate, made it 6-0 after six minutes.
The next stanza belonged to the Vodafone Warriors and the initial statement was from the realms of sporting fairy tales. None other than Mannering took a long pass from Townsend, pushed through a grubber, chased it down and astutely stooped to collect the rolling ball and slide over for his 46th career try on his double milestone day. Perfect.
Shaun Johnson couldn't convert from a handy angle but in the 19th minute the Vodafone Warriors had the lead.
Johnson went to the air, the big man Vatuvei climbed to tap the ball back and Sam Tomkins, making his debut appearance at Mount Smart, had his first try at the ground and his sixth of the season. Johnson's conversion was superb and the home side was 10-6 ahead.
Only six minutes later it grew to 16-6 through the same method, this time Townsend with the bomb and Vatuvei with the clean catch to score his eighth try of the season and the 126th of his career.
About the same time there was cause for anxiety when centre Konrad Hurrell had to be helped off the field in some discomfort in a delicate area (although he would return). Mannering had to shift out to his old spot in the centres and was full of running.
The Knights made the next incision with a second try via a Roberts kick, Joey Leilua racing through with ease (from an offside position as it proved) and Mantellato converting to draw the score-line back to 12-16 after 30 minutes.
Close to halftime the Knights turned over possession with disastrous consequences near their line, the Vodafone Warriors setting up from the attacking scrum and working to the left edge for Mannering's 47th career try. Mateo was twice involved in the lead-up and shifted a sweet pass for Mannering to slice through.
The grind was on in the second half and it was Newcastle which was the first to break through, Roberts penetrating the Vodafone Warriors' right edge defence for Robbie Rochow to score in the 53rd minute. With Mantellato's conversion there was just four points in it at 22-18.
Twice in the following five minutes the Vodafone Warriors had chances to restore their advantage.
A stepping run out of defence by Johnson and quick hands to the right released David Fusitu'a 80 metres out from the Knights' line. He got outsdie the defence and was seemingly try-bound only for Newcastle fullback Darius Boyd to come up with a stunning try-saving tackle near his own line.
Soon after the Vodafone Warriors went to the air on Vatuvei's flank again, looking to give the winger a shot of monstering James McMcManus (coach Wayne Bennett had swapped McManus to the right wing to mark Vatuvei after Mantellato had been exposed by the giant winger in the opening stages). Unfortunately the bomb was too deep and was easily snaffled in-goal for a 20-metre restart.
The Vodafone Warriors stayed patient, kept to their structures and duly the rewards came through pressure exerted.
In the 64th minute Chris Houston dropped the ball cold trying to cart it up out of defence, Ngani Laumape siezed on the loose ball and flicked it to Townsend. He juggled but regathered and crossed for his frst try for the club, like Tomkins celebrating his Mount Smart debut with a four-pointer. Johnson's conversion had the Vodafone Warriors out to a 28-18 lead with 15 minutes to play.
They were far from finished, hungry to pick off the tiring Knights.
They hit the right in the 74th minute, a nice pass out the back from Jacob Lillyman complemented by slick delivery from Johnson and Tomkins opertaing in union to put the hugely popular Hurrell over for his 29th try in his 46th game.
At 32-18 the Vodafone Warriors still weren't done. Right on fulltime the fearsome Vatuvei was all bristling power taking multiple defenders with him over the line for a try Johnson again converted. It was Vatuvei's ninth try in 11 games this season.
The lasting memory, though, was Mannering delivering on his milestone day with just the fifth double of his 200-game career.
He led a superb effort highlighted by wonderful ball control with the Vodafone Warriors completing 33 of 35 sets equating to 94 per cent success rate.
The Vodafone Warriors now prepare for their most challenging away game of the season as they prepare to take the long flight to Perth for the third time in three years, again facing South Sydney as they did last year. After a recovery day tomorrow the team will train on Tuesday, fly to Perth on Wednesday, train there on Thursday and Friday and then take on the Rabbitohs on Saturday (11.30pm kick-off NZT).
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 38 (Simon Mannering 2, Manu Vatuvei 2, Sam Tomkins, Chad Townsend, Konrad Hurrelli tries; Shaun Johnson 5 conversions).
Newcastl;e Knights 18 (Tyrone Roberts, Joey Leilua, Robbie Rochow tries; Josh Mantellato 3 conversions).
Halftime: 22-12 Vodafone Warriors:
Referees: Gavin Badger and Gavin Reynolds.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; David Fusitu’a, Konrad Hurrell, Ngani Laumape, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Nathan Friend, Suaia Matagi; Jayson Bukuya, Ben Matulino; Simon Mannering (c). Interchange: Siliva Havili, Sam Rapira, Feleti Mateo, Sebastine Ikahihifo.