Another dose of Shaun Johnson magic gave the Vodafone Warriors a stunning last-second 20-16 win over Cronulla after a remarkable last eight minutes to tonight's ninth-round NRL contest at Remondis Stadium.
As the match entered its final 10 minutes the two teams were locked together at 10-10 after what had been a hard-bitten and often ugly battle, as most games typically are whenever the Sharks are involved.
But from the 72nd minute on this game exploded into another stratosphere.
Vodafone Warriors centre Solomone Kata - playing on the wing for an injured Manu Vatuvei - ignited it.
Minutes earlier he had fluffed his lines going for a try in the left-hand corner when he failed to ground the ball but this time he made it count, gathering a brilliant Johnson kick and finishing off exceptionally with a centimetre or two to spare. Johnson again missed the challenging conversion - as he had for the team's first two tries in the first half - but the Vodafone Warriors had the lead, albeit precariously, at 14-10 with six minutes to go.
It had disappeared five minutes later when the wrecking ball that is Andrew Fifita stepped up. Surging across field in front of the Vodafone Warriors' posts he thundered his way through hapless defenders for a killer try. It was over to the youthful Valentine Holmes to put his side 16-14 in front with the conversion; on a night when he nailed four from four he didn't disappoint his team or fans but left the Vodafone Warriors and their followers with that empty not-again feeling. Was this Townsville all over again? Please, no.
There was still time on the clock, though, about two and a half minutes when Johnson tried a short restart only to see Cronulla secure possession in the scramble. It was the Sharks' game to lose now as they had the chance to play out the set and kill the game off.
So cue the remarkable. Jeff Robson dallied on his last tackle kick, giving Ryan Hoffman time to charge down, re-gather and surge downfield before he was scragged 25 metres out.
The Vodafone Warriors had a huge line-up to the right. The ball was shifted that way to Johnson but instead of keeping going in the same direction he sensed the defence closing down options outside him - so he cut back off his right foot, exploded across field and then bounced off his left, cutting a swathe through more than half the bewlidered Sharks side. It was one of the most astonishing match-winning tries ever seen, another moment to add to Johnson's catalogue of stunners, and there have been plenty already.
He couldn't fail with the conversion to give his side a 20-16 victory leaving Cronulla with the desolate feeling the Vodafone Warriors had experienced when Jake Granville stole victory for the Cowboys last month.
This was the ultimate way to ice what had been a remarkable week for rugby league and for the Vodafone Warriors particularly. It had gone from the elation of the Kiwis' Anzac Test win to an important victory in the on-going campaign to stay at Mount Smart Stadium and then Friday's signing of Kiwi hooker Issac Luke.
Head coach Andrew McFadden, his staff and the players were desperate to recover from the back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and the Titans, results which left the club lying 13th on the ladder with a three wins-five losses record after eight rounds. Such is the congested nature of the table that this victory over the Sharks has enabled the Vodafone Warriors to climb all the way to eighth, sitting on eight points.
After conceding 22-plus points in each of their last five games another significant positive to come out of the effort was the defensive performance which limited Cronulla to just 16 points and only one try until Fifita's effort in the 72nd minute.
The Sharks were never going to be anything less than difficult opponents. They specialise in turning games into grim battles and this one fitted the bill. There were so many penalties, too many in fact with Cronulla receiving 11 and the Vodafone Warriors 10.
The Vodafone Warriors were able to find their attacking rhythm at times, doing so well to create tries on both edges of the field. For the first Johnson linked with fullback Tuimoala Lolohea, who threw a magnificent ball wide to the right for Jonathan Wright to score against his old club (and snare his third try in as many games).
While Luke Lewis reciprocated for the Sharks soon after Wright's effort, the Vodafone Warriors responded by going to their left edge through Thomas Leuluai, Johnson and Chad Townsend to give man of the moment Vatuvei a one-on-one opportunity against Holmes. He mowed through him and cast aside a couple of other players to score in classic Vatuvei fashion, making it seven tries in nine games this season and 142 in 203 matches in total.
Some exceptional defensive efforts saved the Vodafone Warriors as well. Wright did remarkably well to hold up Mitch Brown in-goal and Lolohea provided an astounding effort - as he did on David Mead on Anzac Day - by running down a try-bound Ben Barba and bundling him into touch.
The game was tied up at 8-8 at halftime after a Holmes penalty before he piloted another shot between the posts for a 10-8 advantage; that, too, was cancelled out when Johnson kicked a penalty from in front of the posts.
This was a match with incident and drama along the way as well, most notably when Cronulla back rower Anthony Tupou was taken to hospital with a broken jaw after a sickening collision with a rampant Konrad Hurrell (Hurrell was put on report as a result).
There was also a significant injury concern for the Vodafone Warriors when they lost Vatuvei with a chest injury he suffered in the first half. He played on for a while before being forced to sit out the game clasping an ice pack to his chest; the extent of the injury is yet to be determined.
The Vodafone Warriors return home today to prepare for another away game next Saturday when they face Parramatta at Pirtek Stadium; it's the club's 500th match since entering the competition in 1995.
Match details | Remondis Stadium, Cronulla
Cronulla Sharks 16 (Luke Lewis, Andrew Fifita tries; Valentine Holmes 2 conversions, 2 penalties).
Vodafone Warriors 20 (Jonathan Wright, Manu Vatuvei, Sololmone Kata, Shaun Johnson tries; Shaun Johnson conversion, penalty).
Vodafone Warriors | Tuimoala Lolohea; Jonathan Wright, Konrad Hurrell, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Shaun Johnson; Ben Matulino, Thomas Leuluai, Jacob Lillyman; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman; Simon Mannering (c). Interchange: Nathan Friend, Dominique Peyroux, Sam Lisone, Albert Vete.