Defensive desperation carried the Vodafone Warriors to a vital 16-12 win over Cronulla in today's 22nd-round NRL clash at Mount Smart Stadium.
Two Ngani Laumape tries and another one for Manu Vatuvei had given them a 16-6 halftime lead but they couldn't add to their score in the second half as they were forced to grind out a priceless win to keep their finals campaign in shape.
They also had to do it with their resources down to two fit players on the bench (they lost outside backs Tuimoala Lolohea and Dane Nielsen) as the Sharks came at them with all they could muster.
There had been plenty of pre-match talk that this would be a comfortable mission for the home side; the more measured view was that it would be a hugely challenging assignment especially given recent history which showed the Sharks had won five in a row against the Vodafone Warriors since 2011 and hadn't lost at Mount Smart Stadium since 2010.
For all that there was again so much to like about the way the Vodafone Warriors opened their innings today.
They've made an art form out of fast starts in recent weeks, creating a string of early tries and they again found a route to the line quickly today, going to their ever-productive right side to give nuggety centre Ngani Laumape a crack. He accepted it gleefully, surging around and through the defensive line for a sixth minute touchdown complemented by Chad Townsend’s splendid conversion.
The follow-up punch didn’t come, though, although not for want of trying with Simon Mannering going close in the left-hand corner and Ben Matulino stopped a centimetre or two short.
The Vodafone Warriors' cause hadn't been helped after losing rookie winger Lolohea with a hamstring injury when the match was in its infancy.
As a consequence the Sharks were able to bite into the battle, if in an effective rather than a classical manner.
Halfback Jeff Robson slid an angled grubber in-goal and in a muddle of bodies Tinirau Arona forced the ball, the try awarded after it was referred to the video referees for deliberation.
With Laumape sliding out to the right wing for the injured Lolohea and Ben Henry off the bench in the centres, the Vodafone Warriors set about creating pressure.
They did it well and in the 24th minute had a go-ahead try when they set their compass to the west side of the ground again, nice hands out the line via Feleti Mateo, Thomas Leuluai and Sam Tomkins allowing Laumape to finish brilliantly in the corner. Townsend’s conversion couldn’t have been any better and the Vodafone Warriors were 12-6 to the good.
In the 30th minute it became 16-6 when centre Dane Nielsen provided a fabulous offload in traffic to Manu Vatuvei, ‘The Beast’ driving over for a great try. It needed verification but when it was approved Vatuvei had his 14th try of the season and No 132 for his career.
Townsend couldn’t steer the conversion throough the posts this time and 10 minutes later the Vodafone Warriors headed to the sheds 10 points ahead after a solid shift in the first 40 minutes.
The Sharks, who lost captain Paul Gallen pre-game, were further handicapped with influential prop Andrew Fifita carrying a serious injury to his left arm (it later transpired he had a fracture).
As the second half took shape the Sharks were proving as difficult as they invariably have been for the Vodafone Warriors.
With a healthier supplyof possession – including a 3-1 penalty count – the visitors were back into the game.
The Vodafone Warriors lost a second player in highly contentious circumstances, Nielsen tipped on his head in an ugly lifting tackle which had Sam Tagataese put on report.
The pressure was intensifying and when Robson popped a kick wide to the Vodafone Warriors’ right side Sharks winger Sosaia Feki pulled it in for a try. Gordon converted and it was game on at 16-12 with 21 minutes still to play.
The next pertiod was excruciating. Both teams went close, both utterly desperate with their scramble on defence.
In the 76th minute Townsend had a chance to make it 18-12 with a penalty. It went wide but dead and from there the Vodafone Warriors were able to close out the match effectively to snare their 11th win in 19 games so far (and their fifth in six starts at Mount Smart Stadium).
The result lifted the Vodafone Warriors from ninth all the way to sixth, one of six teams on 26 points filling fourth to ninth in a packed race for finals. Manly is top on 32 with South Sydney and Penrith on 30 followed by the Cowboys, Roosters, Vodafone Warriors, Storm, Bulldogs and Eels in that order on 26.
Now the Vodafone Warriors prepare to hit the road to play the Knights in Newcastle next Sunday. It's another match many will classify as one they ought to win and do so comfortably in the same way those people dismissed bottom-placed Cronulla.
The Knights are 14th on 18 points but while their season has been difficult they showed on Saturday night just what they're capable of when they shocked Melbourne 32-30. It was a warning if any was needed of the magnitude of the next challenge for the Vodafone Warriors.
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 16 (Ngani Laumape 2, Manu Vatiuvei tries; Chad Townsend 2 conversions).
Cronulla Sharks 12 (Tinirau Arona, Sosaia Feki tries; Michael Gordon 2 conversions).
Halftime: 16-6 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Adam Devcich and Grant Atkins.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Tuimoala Lolohea, Ngani Laumape, 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, Ben Henry.