Club legend Stacey Jones iced an outstanding rookie season as coach by guiding the Vodafone Junior Warriors to a heart-stopping 34-32 win over Brisbane today to snare the club's third NYC premiership in four seasons.
With the temperature a scorching 33 degrees, the Vodafone Junior Warriors wilted in the second half, allowing the Broncos to score 26 unanswered points in the space of 20 minutes to all but steal victory.
When Jayden Nikorima continued Brisbane’s seemingly irresistible comeback with a 78th-minute try wide out, golden point extra time was in prospect as he lined up the conversion.
Hearts were mouths behind the goal-line – and likewise for Jones and others on the side-line – as the Vodafone Junior Warriors collectively willed the attempt to miss its target.
Mercifully for them it did leaving them two points clear with less than 30 seconds left on the clock when play restarted. The Broncos had to go for a big play, the Vodafone Junior Warriors closed them down and it was all over.
Cue a mixture of relief and elation for the exhausted Vodafone Junior Warriors, especially the seven players who’d been forced to stomach defeat in last year’s grand final.
For Jones it was a special triumph in his first shot at coaching at this level. He’d been forced to operate throughout the regular season without a number of the club’s eligible NYC players as they were developed the next level up in the New South Wales Cup.
He and his players also had to endure the most challenging finals schedule imaginable making five consecutive Trans-Tasman trips; the same happened last season only for the team to come up short in the big dance.
The Vodafone Junior Warriors went into the match needing a hot start to match the weather.
They were across for a would-be try in the opening minutes through Michael Ki from a contested bomb only for a no-try call on review.
Fortunately it didn’t prove costly as the Vodafone Junior Warriors leapt to a 10-0 lead by the 11th minute through two Solomone Kata tries.
With the heat such a factor more points were the order but they didn’t come as the Broncos upped the tempo, forcing the Vodafone Junior Warriors into a heavy defensive workload through repeat sets. They repelled the Broncos for some time but eventually conceded, broken up the middle for Alex Barr to score to bring Brisbane back to 6-10 after 24 minutes.
The try didn’t unsettle the Vodafone Junior Warriors, though. They immediately regrouped and struck twice in a matter of three minutes through Kata – with his hat-trick – and then Tuimoala Lolohea to go to halftime with a valuable 22-6 lead.
It was apparent they’d need every advantage possible in the conditions. Quite obviously a 16-point lead wouldn’t be enough.
The second half couldn’t have started any better when Lolohea and Brad Abbey connected to put Ken Maumalo across for his eighth try of the season to stretch to a 28-6 lead.
After 51 minutes it was even healthier as a sweet set play saw Mason Lino put Sam Lisone through a gaping hole for his 10th try of the year (and in his milestone 50th game). On a day when he broke through the 500-point barrier, Lino nailed his fifth conversion to stretch the lead to what looked to be a premiership-clinching 34-6.
Both tries had a 12-point feel about them. Each time Brisbane had been close to scoring at the other end only for the Vodafone Junior Warriors to go directly back downfield and snare points themselves.
It should have been done and dusted there and then - and would have been but for a highly contentious decision (and more which followed soon after).
The critical moment came as Ki steamed onto a short ball, had it stripped from his grasp but cleverly regathered to go over. It looked a try for all money only it was referred upstairs for review. Astonishingly there was just one replay and back came a scarcely believable no-try decision.
It was a leg-up for the Broncos and two refereeing decisions soon after gave them even more hope.
There was plenty of time – more than 20 minutes left – for Brisbane to bite back into the deficit and make a contest of it.
So it was with four tries following all too soon with the Vodafone Junior Warriors unable to stem the flow. The Broncos’ second half dominance was reinforced by the stats, the Broncos completing 15 of 19 sets, the Vodafone Junior Warriors only five of 10; the Vodafone Junior Warriors had to make 146 tackles, Brisbane only 72 and they missed 33 tackles to Brisbane’s 10.
Yet ultimately the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ defence in the last 10 minutes just managed to save them, serving to chew up valuable time until the last two minutes.
Jones achieved history by becoming the first ex-Vodafone Warriors player to coach the club to a premiership; also unprecedented was the feat by the Vodafone Junior Warriors to win the title from eighth place.
Kata was an obvious hero with three tries in the opening 33 minutes, finishing with more than 180 metres from 13 runs. He was a standout choice to win the Jack Gibson Medal awarded to the man of the match in the NYC grand final.
Nathaniel Roache was another, forced to play most of the match at hooker after Kurt Robinson was forced out of the game early after being concussed. Roache produced a lovely break in the first half to put Lolohea in for his try and also topped the tackle count with 35. In the pack Ki, Jazz Tevaga and Toafofoa Sipley topped 100 metres.
For 10 of the team it was the ultimate send-off to NYC football along with winger Metia Lisati who was ruled out with injury. And for seven of the players who were involved in last year’s grand final loss to Penrith it was redemption.
Match details | ANZ Stadium, Sydney
(2) Brisbane Broncos 32 (Paul Byrnes 2, Alex Barr, Kodi Nikorima, Jack Turtle, Jayden Nikorima tries; Jayden Nikorima 3 conversions; Ashley Taylor conversion).
(8) Vodafone Warriors 34 (Solomone Kata 3, Tuimoala Lolohea, Ken Maumalo, Sam Lisone tries; Mason Lino 5 conversions).
Halftime: 22-6 Vodafone Junior Warriors.
Referees: Chris Butler and Chris Sutton.
Vodafone Junior Warriors: Brad Abbey; Ngataua Hukatai, Nathaniel Roache, Solomone Kata, Paul Ulberg; Tuimoala Lolohea, 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.