Cronulla hauled back a 0-10 halftime deficit to beat the Vodafone Warriors 18-14 in Saturday night's NRL clash against Cronulla at Mount Smart Stadium.
Two tries from brilliant winger Valentine Holmes quickly negated the home side's advantage and they then took the lead through a Ricky Leutele try, holding on to take the points - but not without a last-minute escape when the home side was denied what would have been the match-winning try to Tuimoala Lolohea in the final minute.
The Vodafone Warriors started the match with a surprise by switching their centres, Konrad Hurrell starting on the left edge rather than his customary right side and Solomone Kata moving to the right after being used on the other edge so far this season.
There was special comfort seeing Manu Vatuvei back on the field and he immediately made his presence felt with two typically power-charged carries inside his own half to set the tone.
When the Vodafone Warriors had a good ball set, Chad Townsend aimed a crossfield bomb from well out on the right. Vatuvei contested, the ball went loose and comeback man Hurrell pounced for his 40th career try. Lolohea struck the wide-angled conversion cleanly but it hit the upright leaving the Vodafone Warriors 4-0 up after five minutes.
The home side also started with Simon Mannering and Ben Matulino operating on the edges but after 15 minutes Mannering was back in the middle when Albert Vete was replaced. Raymond Faitala-Mariner went to the left edge and starting No 13 Sebastine Ikahihifo into the front row.
With a mix of good defensive reads and penalties awarded in their own end of the field the Vodafone Warriors gained relief and then built pressure. They forced repeat sets through astute kicks and a Sharks error. Faitala-Mariner charged at the line and got across but couldn't get the ball down.
Just when the heat was on Cronulla the Vodafone Warriors relented with an error giving the Sharks a passage out of their end. They not only got out of their territory but forced a goal-line dropout putting the pressure on the Vodafone Warriors' defence.
The home side was equal to it, escorted a last tackle kick dead and then attacked from the seven tackle set with three great runs from Lolohea, Vatuvei and Hurrell. From the last the Vodafone Warriors won a penalty and then engineered another goal-line dropout - and then another one.
This time they were across the line again, big right wing Ken Maumalo claiming his first NRL try but it was ruled a no-try on the field and replays found a Kata knock-on as he contested a bomb. Into the last five minutes of the half the score was still 4-0.
Finally the pressure brought rewards, replacement hooker Siliva Havili sliding through a delightful grubber which Mannering chased down, getting to the ball before Jeff Robson for his first try of the year and the 53rd of his career. Lolohea converted for a 10-0 halftime lead.
The second half started indifferently for the Vodafone Warriors, possession turned over from a forward pass and Cronulla gapping the defence to go long range for a Valentine Holmes try converted brilliantly by Michael Gordon from the touchline. At 10-6 the good work done in the first half had quickly evaporated although it was partly addressed with a Lolohea penalty opening the advantage to 12-6.
In the 55th minute the Sharks were level at 12-12 after Gordon converted a second try from the skilful Holmes and a few minutes later they appeared to have taken the lead when prop Sam Tagataese rumbled over. It was rubbed out, though, when the video refs ruled Vodafone Warriors hooker Nathan Friend had been obstructed in the lead-up.
The relief among the crowd was obvious, even more so when Lolohea kicked a 64th penalty to put the Vodafone Warriors 14-12 ahead.
The lead was short-lived, though, with the Sharks finding a way through the Vodafone Warriors' right edge for centre Ricky Leutele to score and Gordon converting for a four-point lead with nine minutes to play.
It wasn't over. Far from it.
The gallant Vodafone Warriors, full of intent and energy, kept coming. In possession they were committed to the game plan of completing sets and building pressure, evidenced by their 32/41 completion rate at the six goal-line dropouts they forced.
From another goal-line dropout in the closing stages they came at the Sharks again, sweeping to their left where Sam Tomkins threw a superb short pass to put Mannering through. He was tackled short, the ball came back and Lolohea picked it up to put the ball down. It went upstairs as a 'no try' call for review. Replays seemed to indicate Mannering had pushed the ball back in contact but the video referees upheld the on-field call. It was game over.
The result left the Vodafone Warriors eight for the time being, a position they still held after North Queensland beat Canberra later in the evening. However, St George Illawarra's big victory over Newcastle on Sunday put the Dragons back in the top eight with the Vodafone Warriors slipping to ninth.
It sets it up perfectly at Westpac Stadium this Saturday when the Vodafone Warriors host the Dragons in their 22nd-round home game knowing victory will take them back into the top eight.
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 14 (Konrad Hurrell, Simon Mannering tries; Tuimoala Lolohea conversion, 2 penalties).
Cronulla Sharks 18 (Valentine Holmes 2, Ricky Leutele tries; Michael Gordon 3 conversions).
Halftime: 10-0 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Ben Cummins and Gavin Morris.
Vodafone Warriors | Sam Tomkins; Ken Maumalo, Konrad Hurrell, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Tuimoala Lolohea; Jacob Lillyman, Nathan Friend, Albert Vete; Ben Matulino, Simon Mannering (c); Sebastine Ikahihifo. Interchange: Siliva Havili, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Charlie Gubb, Sam Lisone.