Front rower and co-captain Sam Lisone was an inspirational figure as the Vodafone Junior Warriors beat Newcastle 23-16 tonight to move just one win away from reaching their second straight NYC grand final.
Having eliminated the fifth-ranked Sydney Roosters last week, the Stacey Jones-coached side backed up by knocking off the minor premiership-winning Newcastle Knights in another sudden-death encounter at Allianz Stadium.
The Vodafone Junior Warriors may have sneaked into the finals through their 18-18 draw with Penrith but these two displays in the space of eight days have established them as title contenders yet again.
As there was against the Roosters last week, there was plenty of edge in this contest especially in the closing stanza as the frustrated Newcastle players saw their season coming to an end after they’d set the pace in the regular season.
The Vodafone Junior Warriors didn’t hide their relish in knowing they’d given the minor premiers a quick end to their season.
They played with aggression and intensity with and without the ball for much of the battle. Setting the tone was the impressive Lisone who dented, bent and breached Newcastle’s defensive line with more than 200 metres from a dozen high-quality carries while he was also destructive on defence (and made 28 tackles in all).
That was never better illustrated than by his almost outrageous effort in the closing minutes when the Knights were hunting a try to give them a sniff of a late escape.
From an attacking scrum well over on the left they spread directly to their right, fullback Jake Mamo kicking out of two tackles and threatening to go in wide out. Only Lisone had jumped out of the scrum and raced all the way across to the right-hand edge to phenomenally bury Mamo across the touchline.
Earlier the Vodafone Junior Warriors scored twice in the opening 12 minutes through powerful centre Solomone Kata and second rower Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard to take a 12-0 lead.
For the next 27 minutes they couldn’t build on their lead but they critically kept the Knights at bay, giving them nothing and then providing some polish when Lino nudged over a field goal in the final seconds for a 13-0 lead.
There was reason for anxiety in the opening 10 minutes of the second half when Newcastle engineered two tries to close to within 10-13 but this was the cue for the Vodafone Junior Warriors to dig in defensively.
Staying in the grind duly brought its rewards with two tries in a matter of five minutes.
By then they were without their talismanic fullback Brad Abbey but it didn’t affect a set play from an attacking scrum as they shifted swiftly to the left to hand Ken Maumalo a try in the corner. A 19-10 lead became 23-10 in the 67th minute when Tuimavave-Gerrard had his second try and Mason Lino converted.
Behind by 13 points the Knights had it all to do. They came within seven points with a converted try in the 71st minute but the Vodafone Junior Warriors were equal to everything they came up with in the last nine minutes. They simply kept turning the Knights away to work their way to a splendid triumph.
It was the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ third trip to Sydney in consecutive weeks. Now they will come home on Sunday and do it for a fourth time next week, heading back across the Tasman for their preliminary final against Parramatta.
They’re the only team from outside the top four to make it this far, in the process improving their splendid finals record to 13 wins in 18 play-offs since the NYC started in 2008.
With his seven points Lino moved closer to a double that’s still in sight in his last season in the grade; he now has 191 points this season and 482 in his NYC career.
Match details | Allianz Stadium, Sydney
(1) Newcastle Knights 16 (Pride Petterson-Robati, Jaelen Feeney, Daniel Levi tries; Bryce Donovan 2 conversions).
(8) Vodafone Warriors 23 (Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard 2, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo tries; Mason Lino 3 conversions, field goal).
Halftime: 13-0 Vodafone Junior Warriors.
Referees: Chris Sutton and Matt Noyen.
Vodafone Warriors: Brad Abbey; Ngataua Hukatai, Nathaniel Roache, Solomone Kata, Metia Lisati; Tuimoala Lolohea, Mason Lino (c); Sam Lisone (c), Kurt Robinson, Kouma Samson; Marata Niukore, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard; Jazz Tevaga. Interchange: James Bell, Toafofoa Sipley, Ken Maumalo, Iulio Afoa.