The Vodafone Warriors powered back into the NRL’s top eight as they overwhelmed Canberra for the second time this season with a 54-18 victory in today’s 21st-round clash at GIO Stadium.
If there was cause for concern, real or perceived, about the club’s failure to win at the venue it was totally put to bed with this display.
The win and the scale of it enabled the Vodafone Warriors to bounce back to seventh spot and they would have been sixth had they been able to defend their 54-0 lead late in the contest, or build on it.
By then, though, they were down on numbers, playing out the final few minutes with only 12 players on the field due to a number of players being battered and the coaching staff opting not to risk any further damage.
What mattered more was the manner in which the Vodafone Warriors imposed themselves as they came into the game in ninth spot following back-to-back losses to Brisbane (22-28) and competition leader Manly (12-22).
Before they settled into their scoring rhythm, the Vodafone Warriors needed a superb tackle by halfback Thomas Leuluai to prevent Canberra scoring in the opening minute.
From there they powered up from right on their line, went to their left and Simon Mannering released Sam Tomkins on a long break. Back to the middle they went and then aimed right with Nathan Friend feeding Chad Townsend and then onto Leuluai who had the rangy late replacement Sione Lousi on his hip. With the Canberra line hesitant, Lousi exploded and charged through Jarrod Croker and Terry Campese to get the ball down for his second try this season and just the third of his career.
Townsend couldn’t convert the fourth minute effort – yet another early strike by the Vodafone Warriors – but they were soon sniffing more try-scoring action.
Again their right side benefited, the ball going out to Tomkins who dummied and then cut back against the grain surging past four or five statue-like defenders to score his 10th try of the year. This time the conversion was straightforward for Townsend to have his side out to a 10-0 lead after 12 minutes.
Instead of heading straight back from the restart to exert more pressure, the Raiders profited from a wicked, swirling kick-off which Tomkins couldn’t secure.
It set in motion a period of defensive heat as Canberra forced repeat sets and kept coming at their guests’ line. The defence was up to it, though, with the Vodafone Warriors repelling all the Raiders threw at them.
That phase was defining, saying so much about the players’ collective attitude, effort and execution (which had been down against the Broncos and the Sea Eagles).
Having held out Canberra for the best part of 10 minutes the Vodafone Warriors headed out of their red zone, had help further downfield via a penalty and then began to create pressure.
In the 27th minute the pay-off came with Tomkins, Ben Matulino and Leuluai each providing some magic. From a flat start picking up a loose ball, Tomkins weaved in and out of traffic in octopus-like fashion, and shifted to Matulino who charged at the line; checked just short Matulino flicked a one hander out, Leuluai cleverly flipped the ball on and Konrad Hurrell had one of the easiest tries of his career.
Townsend made the margin 16-0 with the conversion, putting the Vodafone Warriors in the ideal position to build more pressure.
And they did just that.
With the Raiders putting the restart dead, the Vodafone Warriors had an open invitation for more points.
It seemed they may have passed up the offer when Townsend appeared to have missed touch from the penalty; all sorts of replays followed before it was finally discovered the kick had in fact brushed the touchline.
Cue another raid to the right, a beautifully executed set play with Feleti Mateo the decoy and Leuluai slipping a lovely ball for the rampaging Matulino to cross for his fourth try in 2014.
It’s validity was doubted on-field with a no try call sent upstairs to the video referees. They overturned it, finding no case for obstruction against Mateo.
So with Townsend’s conversion it was 22-0 after 31 minutes and the Vodafone Warriors were worth every point of it on the evidence of their performance.
They weren’t done with, though.
Three minutes short of halftime the left side was given some love on attack at last but not through the anticipated method of going right out to the edge.
Instead Mateo combined with veteran prop Sam Rapira, popping the sweetest short ball for Rapira to shoot into open spaces and cover maybe 30 metres on an angled run to score his 13th career try in his 165th appearance. It was his first of the season and until today he had just one try in his last 50 games going back to 2011.
With his fourth conversion from five attempts, Townsend had the Vodafone Warriors out to a 28-0 advantage at halftime.
There were concerns on the injury front, though, with Hurrell having hamstring trouble and not taking the field for the start of the second half. Dane Nielsen wasn’t fully fit either but stayed on but nothing was disrupting the Vodafone Warriors today.
While they might have been without the injured Shaun Johnson again as well as another of their main attacking weapons in Hurrell they kept at their task. There was an absolutely ruthless touch about their intent.
Having scored a rare try three minutes before halftime, Rapira added a second just four minutes after the resumption; Mateo was again his friend with another superb short ball. It was only his second career double, the first five years ago against the Bulldogs.
From 34-0 after 44 minutes the score just kept growing with scoring joy coming out on the left after the right had been the favoured route until then.
Vatuvei was fed a bomb and he obliged by collecting it and surging over. A little later he had two more through raw power as he was given room to run at fearful Canberra defenders to complete a hat-trick inside 16 minutes. His rivals couldn’t handle him at all as he went through players to score wide out in the 63rd and 68th minutes to take the score past 50, 54 to be precise.
Vatuvei, with only one try in his previous six games, now has 13 in 18 games this season; he has climbed into the top 20 on the NRL’s all-time list with 131 tries in 189 games, today overtaking Matt Bowen (130 in 270 games) and Rhys Wesser (129 in 218).
He certainly has an appetite for scoring against Canberra with 12 in his last five outings against the club.
In between Vatuvei’s scoring assault today there was another glorious try via the right edge as Tuimoala Lolohea showed off his repertoire of talents screaming down the touchline and flinging a beautiful pass infield for Ngani Laumape to get in on the action.
Apparently some people were feeling sorry for the Raiders at this point. Quite why was unclear. After all, they had been dishing out defeats to the Vodafone Warriors year after year at Canberra Stadium (GIO Stadium now). Nine in a row since 1997 and 10 from 11 all up.
So there shouldn’t have been any pity, rather glee that the Vodafone Warriors had put another perceived hoodoo to rest. They’ve won in Townsville this year, at Eden Park, Westpac Stadium and now in Canberra again at last to put their bid for the 2014 NRL finals in positive shape.
The one blemish came late when they had just 12 players on the field. Against the reduced defensive line the Raiders bagged three late tries which wouldn’t have pleased the Vodafone Warriors as they sought to keep their opponents scoreless.
Freakishly it meant the score-line of 54-12 with two minutes to go was the same as the outcome at Eden Park in May until Reece Robinson scored in the final seconds to make it 54-18.
It wasn’t a record win for the Vodafone Warriors against Canberra in the end – the one at Eden Park has that honour – but they had easily topped the previous best of 31 for points scored against the Raiders in Canberra.
In the last three matches against the Green Machine the Vodafone Warriors have scored 158 points while conceding only 46.
Now they head home to face Cronulla next Sunday seeking to solidify their place inside the top eight. Like the Raiders, the Sharks might be languishing at the bottom end of the ladder but that never means anything in this competition (as the Vodafone Warriors have discovered to their chagrin previously).
Fact is the Sharks have won the last five matches against the Vodafone Warriors since 2011.
Match details | GIO Stadium, Canberra
Canberra Raiders 18 (Josh McCrone, Paul Vaughan, Reece Robinson tries; Jarrod Crocker 3 conversions).
Vodafone Warriors 54 (Manu Vatuvei 3, Sam Rapira 2, Sione Lousi, Sam Tomkins, Konrad Hurrell, Ben Matulino, Ngani Laumape tries; Chad Townsend 7 conversions).
Halftime: 28-0 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Gavin Morris and Gavin Reynolds.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Dane Nielsen, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Thomas Leuluai; Jacob Lillyman, Nathan Friend, Suaia Matagi; Sione Lousi, Simon Mannering (c); Sebastine Ikahihifo. Interchange: Feleti Mateo, Ben Matulino, Sam Rapira, Tuimoala Lolohea.