After a run of disappointing displays the Vodafone Warriors put together their best performance in two months only to be handed a heartbreaking 22-26 loss by the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in their final match of the 2015 NRL season tonight.
It was an ending that left captain Simon Mannering thumping his fist into the ANZ Stadium turf in exasperation as the final siren sounded.
Only three minutes earlier the Vodafone Warriors, against almost all expectations, had their noses in front, leading the highly-regarded Bulldogs 22-20 after Tuimoala Lolohea's sweet skills had reaped a second try for the night.
The Vodafone Warriors had come back from a 10-20 deficit midway through the second half with his double strikes in the 65th and 70th minutes, giving him 11 tries for the season and his first tries away from Mount Smart Stadium.
After losing seven on end there was hope at last that the Vodafone Warriors would get the job done this time. Their ball security had been perfect as they completed 16 of 16 sets in the second half but when an error came it proved to be game-changing. From the scrum the Bulldogs swept downfield menacingly up the middle to send captain James Graham over. It was a dagger blow.
There was time left on the clock and, from a short restart, the Vodafone Warriors claimed possession, pushed the ball around and gave Solomone Kata a glimmer of a chance. He couldn't get there, shoved out at the corner leaving the Vodafone Warriors crestfallen after the reverses they'd endured since their July 12 win over Melbourne.
It was scant consolation in the end that they should push the Bulldogs all the way and still not take the points. In the context of their recent efforts it was huge performance, though.
The intent was again there from the opening moments when a Bulldogs error gave them possession 40 metres out from the home side's line but the first shot at the opposition came to nothing.
Albert Vete carried the ball forward potently in the initial exchanges as the Vodafone Warriors were able to build some pressure, even more so when they were awarded a penalty for a high tackle on Matt Allwood.
As they had done against the Cowboys and Wests Tigers, they made the most of the opportunity to open the scoring once more. Hooker Nathan Friend - in his 86th and last game for the club - exploded out of dummy half to score near the right-hand upright only four minutes in. Lolohea converted for a 6-0 advantage.
They couldn’t build on it, though.
Almost immediately the Bulldogs challenged when they went to their right side, fullback Sam Perrett getting on the outside surging towards the line but losing possession as he slid in attempting to score.
That was a bullet dodged but the Vodafone Warriors weren’t so fortunate in the 14th minute when the Bulldogs hit their left, Curtis Rona threatening then offloading to his left for Josh Morris in support to score wide out. Tim Lafai’s conversion attempt from wide out drifted away to the right.
Along the way the Vodafone Warriors might have had a second try when rookie halfback Mason Lino fooled Canterbury-Bankstown’s defence with a superb show-and-go. He shot clear with only Perrett to beat but the former Kiwi was equal to the task, forcing the ball loose in the tackle.
The visitors were making some inroads and stayed in the arm wrestle for a period before the Bulldogs found joy through their left edge again, New Zealander Rona squeezing in brilliantly at the corner. Lafai couldn’t convert again.
The Vodafone Warriors weren’t short on endeavour and effort but wanted for execution as they made 11 first half errors, although it should be said the Bulldogs also had handling issues.
Despite that the Vodafone Warriors hung in well for the rest of the half to go to the break just 6-8 behind, the closest they'd been to an opponent since leading Cronulla 10-0 at halftime on August 1.
They followed up their effort by starting the second half impressively.
Chad Townsend’s well-placed kick was matched by a great chase from Allwood and Kata who drove Perrett back and pinned him in-goal to force a goal-line drop out.
From the repeat set the Vodafone Warriors set up perfectly to sweep to their left. Lino, Sam Lisone, Townsend, Ben Matulino and Lolohea were all involved to put Kata in for his 12th try of the season. After snaring 11 tries in the first 13 games of the season, he hadn't scored in his last 10 games but this one took him to the top of the club’s try-scoring list for the season. Lolohea couldn’t convert from wide out but the Vodafone Warriors had the lead 10-8, the best position they’d been in for several weeks.
The lead lasted for 13 minutes when the Bulldogs struck twice in the space of four minutes through right wing Chase Stanley and livewire hooker Damien Cook, Tim Browne converting both to have his side out to a 20-10 lead.
In previous weeks the Vodafone Warriors had come unstuck in such a scenario. Not this time as Lolohea's dazzling feet bamboozled the Bulldogs almost immediately after Cook's try before he knifed through again to have the Vodafone Warriors in front with 10 minutes to play ... only to falter at the death.
Match details | ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 26 (Josh Morris, Curtis Rona, Chase Stanley, Damien Cook, James Graham tries; Tim Browne 3 conversions).
Vodafone Warriors 22 (Tuimoala Lolohea 2, Nathan Friend, Solomone Kata tries; Tuimoala Lolohea 3 conversions).
Halftime: 8-6 Bulldogs.
Referees: Ashley Klein and Grant Atkins.
Vodafone Warriors | Tuimoala Lolohea; Jonathan Wright, Dominique Peyroux, Solomone Kata, Matt Allwood; Chad Townsend, Mason Lino; Albert Vete, Nathan Friend, Ben Matulino; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman; Simon Mannering (c). Interchange: Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Sam Lisone, Sione Lousi.