A sensational last-minute Tuimoala Lolohea try gave the Vodafone Junior Warriors a remarkable 29-26 qualifying final win over Parramatta at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night to earn them a spot in the NYC grand final yet again.
It didn't seem plausible or even possible it would end this way with only two minutes to play.
After leading 19-6 at halftime and looking the most convincing side, the Vodafone Junior Warriors were somehow anything but impressive in the next 27 minutes of the contest.
Their intensity dropped off, allowing the Eels to take control.
They scored twice in the early stages of the second half to close within five points and two more tries followed a little later, the momentum heading all one way for Parramatta to make it 20 unanswered points and a 26-19 lead heading the last 10 minutes.
As the match went past the 77-minute mark the Eels still led by seven points. The Vodafone Junior Warriors' dreams of a second straight grand final appearance and a fourth in five years seemed to have been shattered.
But this Stacey Jones-coached side wouldn't be denied and wouldn't give in.
Needing inspiration they found it in the astonishing Sam Lisone who once again kept taking the side forward.
In the 78th minute the break needed came, Kurt Robinson arriving a little late at dummy half but just in time to sweep the ball up and pierce through the defensive line to score his first try of the year at the most vital time. Mason Lino converted and it was 26-25 with not much more than a minute to play.
Now the Vodafone Junior Warriors couldn't be counted out. They never can be in these circumstances and true to form they found salvation - although not without some more palpitations.
With seconds to go the influential Lino went to the line, dummied and then the ball somehow came loose for Lolohea to pick up and carve his way through to plant the ball.
The try wasn't and couldn't be awarded immediately. The on-field call was a try but it needed to be validated upstairs. There was replay after replay trying to establish what happened in contact when the ball came loose from Lino's grasp. Evidence suggested a Parramatta hand may have been involved but that was irrelevant to the Vodafone Junior Warriors once the try was officially awarded.
Cue an emotional outpouring as the they confirmed their place in the grand final in the unlikeliest manner, securing their third straight win in the finals after just sneaking into eighth spot via Lino's last gasp conversion in an 18-18 draw against Penrith on September 7.
Now they face Brisbane in the big dance knowing they'll make their fifth Trans-Tasman trip in as many weeks in what has been an astonishing ride so far; and knowing the club is in the grand final for the second straight year and the fourth time in the last five seasons.
The job isn't done yet but there has been so much to admire about the way rookie NYC coach Jones and his players have gone about their work.
There was no sign early on that the match would play out the way it did.
A typical power play had opened up Parramatta for the first try in the 10th minute.
Winning repeat sets through penalties, hooker Kurt Robinson served it up for the rampaging Lisone to surge across for his ninth try of the season and his third in the finals series. Lino, troubled by a leg knock early on, took his points tally to 191 for the season with the conversion.
Just three minutes later the Eels were exposed again, this time from distance as a sweet Lolohea pass released second rower Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard on a long run for his 11th try of the year and his fourth in this finals campaign. Lino was up to 193 points with the conversion.
The 12-0 lead was reduced when the Vodafone Junior Warriors failed to handle a last tackle bomb. From the next set halfback and 2013 Junior Kiwi Zach Dockar-Clay exposed soft goal-line defence to score near the posts.
The setback didn’t unsettle the Vodafone Junior Warriors, though.
For the second time in the match they earned a goal-line drop out with a restart the Eels were unable to handle. It set the scene for them to get into the grind.
They controlled field position, forced Parramatta into errors and ultimately found joy in the 28th minute.
Lino had been noticeably limping at various stages of the game but he showed no signs of injury when he had a sniff of a try from 10 metres out.
The Eels clearly sensed Lino would shift the ball outside to his right but he fooled them, going at their defence to squeeze through to get the ball down for his 11th try of the season.
It was immediately awarded on the field but Parramatta waited for the replays on the big screen to find out whether a captain’s challenge should be lodged.
Sensing as much and operating according to the laws, Lino intelligently placed the ball quickly and converted his try before the Eels could question the try’s validity. It meant the try stood, the Vodafone Junior Warriors had an 18-6 lead and Lino had 10 points for the day to stretch to 199 points for the season (and 490 for his NYC career).
Close to halftime Lino opted for a one-point field goal option, as he had in the final seconds of the first half against Newcastle last week. Maybe going for a try and a possible 24-6 lead would have been the more sensible choice, more so after Lino sprayed his attempt wide.
As it turned out Parramatta immediately gave the ball back the next set coming out of defence and this time Lino was set up perfectly for another field goal. He nailed it for a 19-6 lead to bring up 200 points for the year.
Having been the best side in the first half the Vodafone Junior Warriors were guilty of losing their way in the early stages of the second half.
Two tries in the first 14 minutes reduced the margin and the Eels were across for a would-be third try soon after which might have taken them into the lead. The initial call on the field was 'try' but upstairs a knock-on was found and the call was over-turned much to the Vodafone Junior Warriors' relief.
They couldn't hold on, though, as Parramatta then struck twice more to jump to a 26-19 advantage, one which seemed destined to end the Vodafone Junior Warriors' hopes of making the grand final.
Hold the phone. The Vodafone Junior Warriors don't do rugby league this way, finding yet another way to win a match so many people wouldn't have thought possible. Certainly Parramatta wished it wasn't possible.
There were heroes everywhere but it was Robinson and Lolohea who came up with the critical exclamation marks for the Vodafone Junior Warriors' 14th win in 19 finals matches. Critical, too, was Lino's goal-kicking as he kicked four of five conversions as well as field goal. Wit his try and 13 points in all he goes into the grand final with 202 points so far this season and 293 in 61 career appearances to give him the chance of reaching 500 in the match that matters the most.
It will also be a huge day on a personal level for Lisone who will play his 50th NYC game in his final outing in the competition.
Now bring on the Broncos. It's grand final day for the Vodafone Junior Warriors once again next Sunday.
Match details | ANZ Stadium, Sydney
(2) Parramatta Eels 26 (Zach Dockar-Clay, John Folau, Halauafu Levaka, Kelepi Tanginoa, Josh Aloiai tries; Nathan Davis 3 conversions).
(8) Vodafone Warriors 29 (Sam Lisone, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard, Mason Lino, Kurt Robinson, Tuimoala Lolohea tries; Mason Lino 4 conversions, field goal).
Halftime: 19-6 Vodafone Junior Warriors.
Referees: Chris Butler and Jon Stone.
Vodafone Junior Warriors: Tuimoala Lolohea; Ngataua Hukatai, Nathaniel Roache, Solomone Kata, Paul Ulberg; Mafoa’aeata Hingano, Mason Lino (c); Sam Lisone (c), Kurt Robinson, Kouma Samson; Michael Ki, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard; Jazz Tevaga. Interchange: James Bell, Toafofoa Sipley, Ken Maumalo, Iulio Afoa.