Wing David Fusitu'a went within one try of equalling the club record of five tries in a match to lead the Vodafone Warriors to their biggest win of the season as they beat bottom-of-the-table Newcastle 50-14 in Saturday's 14th-round NRL match at Hunter Stadium.
After scoring the side's second try in the ninth minute, Fusitu'a snared three more in a dazzling 10-minute onslaught early in the second spell.
While he couldn't quite find his way to the line for a fifth to draw level with Francis Meli's record mark set in 2003, the four-try haul lifts him to 16 tries in 22 NRL appearances.
The victory elevated the Vodafone Warriors to ninth for about two hours, and then inside the top eight for the first time this season following Gold Coast's 12-22 loss to Parramatta in Darwin. The Titans' defeat left them on 14 points with the Vodafone Warriors taking eighth spot on points for and against from Gold Coast (the two sides have the same differential of minus 26 but the Vodafone Warriors sit a place higher due to their superior points for total of 306 compared to the Titans' 265).
The stay in the top eight lasted only 24 hours, though, with Penrith taking over after a 31-24 win against Manly on Sunday, although it should be pointed out the Eels haven't yet been officially stripped of 12 pionts for salary cap breaches and are still shown in fifth spot on the table.
What is clear is that the Vodafone Warriors, with a second win on end for only the second time this season, now have a six wins-seven losses record with 12 rounds to go.
While there was satisfaction about generally maintaining standards after last week's spectacular demolition of Brisbane, the match finished with veteran wing Manu Vatuvei and halfback Shaun Johnson on the sideline icing leg complaints. Late head coach Andrew McFadden said Johnson had been taken off as a precaution and would be clear to play next weekend while Vatuvei is in doubt.
Their issues couldn't take the gloss off the Vodafone Warriors' third away win this season. It was critical for them to back up what they did against the Broncos.
As it happened, they began the match indifferently, turning the ball over 20 metres from their line the very first tackle they had possession; they defended it well, though.
Responding with a safe set out of their end they then profited when the Knights turned the ball over as well, the error immediately lading to prop Jacob Lillyman showing silky skills as a playmaker when he poked his nose through on a set play, off-loading to fellow front rower Albert Vete for a fourth-minute try. Or was it? It went to the bunker as a ‘no try’ call with a query over obstruction but was eventually overturned to the Vodafone Warriors’ – and Vete’s – delight.
As they did against the Broncos last week, they had the perfect start with early points and minutes later made it 10-0 when they created numbers on their right with Vete, Johnson and Tuimoala Lolohea all handling to put Fusitu’a across for his third try in two games.
The requirement was to stay tight, to keep building pressure through steady football but they went away from the script, putting the ball down just outside their 20 coming out of trouble.
If it was a gift opportunity for the Knights they didn't appear to appreciate it as they managed to lose the ball in contact giving the Vodafone Warriors a passage out of their end.
The respite was brief. Newcastle received a penalty and engineered a try to Sione Mata’utia, the centre fending off defenders to score close to the posts for Trent Hodkinson to convert and have his side just 6-10 behind.
The danger signs were there but the Vodafone Warriors allayed them – momentarily at least – when a last tackle kick rebounded back to Johnson to link with Thomas Leuluai and then Manu Vatuvei. The Beast was always going to score, surging over for his 149th career try and now just one short of becoming only the 11th player in the competition's history to score 150 tries.
While Johnson’s conversion had the Vodafone Warriors 16-6 ahead after 22 minutes there was always the fear the energetic Knights would return serve. They did, a grubber in behind the line setting up a try for ex-Rooster Brendan Elliot in his first outing for Newcastle.
With Hodkinson converting this contest was feeling eerily similar to the Vodafone Warriors’ previous two trips to Hunter Stadium when an unfancied Newcastle side aimed up to win against most expectations.
The Vodafone Warriors needed to get into the grind and they did with repeat sets off a penalty – turning down a shot at goal in the process – and a goal-line dropout.
The patience paid off. Desperate defence stopped Lolohea from scoring but in an instant the 200-game man Issac Luke, feinting to go out at the back, hit Thompson flat for a try that owed everything to creating pressure. It was ultimately too much for the Knights to answer, Johnson converting for a 22-12 lead.
Three consecutive penalties to Newcastle threatened to undo the good work but when the third was awarded close to the halftime siren there was some relief seeing the Knights opt for two points instead to go to the break 14-22 behind.
It was arm wrestle fare as the second half started, the Vodafone Warriors hinting at going further ahead as they stretched Newcastle defensively without being able to break through.
Instead it was Newcastle which had the best opening only to see Daniel Saifiti spill the ball with the line at his mercy.
It didn't unsettle the Vodafone Warriors. Rather they stuck to their work, headed downfield and created enough room for Fusitu'a to show his expert finishing skills in the 49th minute, Johnson converting from the sideline to take the score out to 28-14.
There was a negative, though, with the Vodafone Warriors losing Vatuvei with a hamstring injury, putting his shot at his 150th try on hold again. It didn't deter a composed Vodafone Warriors side.
They went to their right again for Fusitu'a to complete his hat-trick in the 52nd minute and then his fourth in the 58th. Three tries for Fusitu'a in 10 minutes and suddenly the Vodafone Warriors were out to a 40-14 lead, the second time this season they'd hit 40 against the Knights.
Luke took over the kicking duties for the third of the Fusitu'a tries with Johnson later leaving the field to ice his right quad.
The hunt was on to lay on a fifth try for Fusitu'a to equal Meli's club record. He had a chance, too, only to be rounded up.
So in the 67th minute the Vodafone Warriors changed it up and headed left, captain Ryan Hoffman rolling out a nice off load in the lead-up to centre Solomone Kata's 10th try of the season. At 44-14 there was still ample time to strike the 50-point mark.
They dodged a consolation try for Newcastle when Jake Mamo failed to ground the ball and then duly brought up the half century with Vete's second try of the match in the 75th minute.
The Vodafone Warriors' dominance was naturally reflected in the statistics. They made their most line breaks in a game this year - a staggering 13 - and their most metres (1888) as well as again equalling their fewest errors in a match with six (the same as they had last week).
Nine players topped 100 metres, Lolohea the best with 225 and Fusitu'a 192.
Next up for the Vodafone Warriors is a home match against the Sydney Roosters at Mount Smart Stadium next Sunday (6.00pm kick-off).
Hunter Stadium, Newcastle
Newcastle Knights 14 (Sione Mata'utia, Brendan Elliot tries; Trent Hodkinson 2 conversions, penalty).
Vodafone Warriors 50 (David Fusitua 4, Albert Vete 2, Manu Vatuvei, Bodene Thompson, Solomone Kata tries; Shaun Johnson 5 conversions; Issac Luke 2 conversions).
Halftime: 22-14 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Dave Munro and Alan Shortall.
Vodafone Warriors | Tuimoala Lolohea; David Fusitu'a, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Albert Vete; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Albert Vete, Charlie Gubb.