The Vodafone Warriors moved back into the top eight with a courageous 12-10 win over the Sydney Roosters in a brutal 15th-round NRL battle at Mount Smart Stadium tonight.
The result pushed them up to seventh on a table which still includes Parramatta, yet to be stripped of points for salary cap breaches.
Before sealing their third consecutive win the Vodafone Warriors had to overcome considerable adversity.
The contest was only eight minutes old when prop Albert Vete and standoff Thomas Leuluai both had to leave the field for concussion tests.
Vete later passed his concussion test inside the prescribed time and returned but Leuluai was lost for the night, forcing a major reshuffle in the backline which saw rookie Nathaniel Roache used out of position on the wing.
And in the 19th minute there was a further setback when wing Ken Maumalo was sin binned for a professional foul leaving the team with only 12 players for 10 minutes.
Yet the Vodafone Warriors battled through those periods, hung tough and finally came away with a win head coach Andrew McFadden later hailed as a better performance than the ones against Brisbane and Newcastle. That was founded on the manner in which the players coped with the challenges to grind out a result in an intensely physical encounter.
It was always going to be a rugby league equivalent of trench warfare, especially up front with the Roosters boasting plenty of size and physical presence through Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam Moa, Dylan Napa, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Kane Evans.
So it proved, the first half providing a throwback to the old days in the ultimate arm wrestle.
In a break from the norm, the Vodafone Warriors received back-to-back holding down penalties the first time they had possession but nothing came of the good ball opportunity.
When the Roosters knocked on trying to intercept an Issac Luke pass, the Vodafone Warriors were on attack again only to lose possession as they were putting heat on the Roosters.
The contact was as heavy as expected in the middle, amply exemplified when Vete and Leuluai had to leave the field which saw Toafofoa Sipley and Roache thrown into the fray.
Sipley immediately made an impact with a power-packed hit-up and left wing Ken Maumalo powered up towards the posts but soon after couldn’t grab a long pass from Luke with the line in his sights.
The contest turned in the 19th minute when the Roosters went to the right. A last tackle bomb was batted back, cleaned up and a grubber ahead into the in-goal presented debutant wing Joseph Manu with the chance to score. It went to the bunker, numerous replays determining no try but concluding Maumalo had impeded Manu by shoving him off the ball as he chased down the kick.
Maumalo was put in the sin bin for a professional foul and from the resulting penalty the Roosters instantly profited by sending second rower Mitch Aubusson over on the left. Former Vodafone Warrior Taukeiaho was well astray with the conversion attempt, much to the crowd’s amusement.
Behind 0-4 and down to 12 men, the Vodafone Warriors needed to check any chance of the Roosters gaining real momentum.
They did by forcing an error and then picking up a penalty. Ordinarily they would have opted to go at the Roosters again but, playing a man short and needing to eat up the clock, there was only one option this time – take the two. With Shaun Johnson affected by a thigh injury, Issac Luke had the goal-kicking duties, piloting the goal to cut the margin to 2-4.
Better still followed as the Vodafone Warriors came back from the restart with a superb set to force a goal-line dropout, using up still more time although the repeat set fell down when Ryan Hoffman spilled a pass from Luke.
Still they succeeded in keeping the Roosters out while Maumalo was off the field. Restored to their full complement Maumalo carried the ball potently again and won a penalty but there was to be no further scoreboard activity as the teams headed to halftime with the score 4-2 in the Roosters’ favour.
On the injury front, Vete was cleared to return from his head knock but Leuluai wasn’t. It forced a backline reshuffle with David Fusitu’a going to fullback, Tuimoala Lolohea into the halves and Roache onto the wing.
Staying in the grind was the minimum requirement as the second half started in this old-fashioned battle. The Vodafone Warriors did just that and picked up the spoils with penalties in front of the posts in the 53rd and 55th minutes, Luke kicking both to first level the scores 4-4 and then edge his side 6-4 ahead.
The introduction of Charlie Gubb and the re-injection of Sipley plus Sam Lisone had fired up the Vodafone Warriors, their enthusiasm bringing added sting to their work in the middle.
The Roosters were in a world of trouble on the discipline front, the penalty count soaring to 10-3 in the home side's favour and giving it great field position.
As the pressure built, Solomone Kata was given a shot at the left-hand corner but lost the ball as he was trying to get it down despite the attention of multiple defenders.
Minutes later the reward from staying in the wrestle came, Johnson running on the last and doing plenty of work to get the ball down in fullback Latrell Mitchell's tackle. With Luke's conversion the lead was out to to 12-4 after 65 minutes but the Roosters were never going to go away.
Indeed they were right back into it just four minutes later. Wonderful off loading on the right kept the ball alive to create a stunning try for Connor Watson. Converted by Taukeiaho, the Vodafone Warriors were now just 12-10 ahead.
The nerves were jangling as Shaun Kenny-Dowall immediately made a long break down the right after the restart but Fusitu'a expertly shadowed him, forcing the Kiwi to off load into touch. The crowd went absolutely wild over the error, the sense of relief palpable.
The Roosters threatened again but the Vodafone Warriors remained resolute to the end to level up their season's record at 7-7 ahead of what will be their toughest test of the season so far against the high-flying Cronulla next weekend.
That they scored just one try and had to wait 63 minutes for it wasn't an issue, not when they were able to close out the match and keep their opponents down to just 10 points.
Critical to their success was the fact they dominated possession. They had 42 sets and completed 32 of them while the Roosters managed only 20 from 31.
There were heroes everywhere, Simon Mannering with 53 tackles, the starting forwards all with 100 metres plus, Maumalo overcoming an early error and his sin binning with 181 metres, Fusitu'a superb again in taking on the fullback's role and Roache doing a wonderful job marking Daniel Tupou on the wing. There were others, too.
As McFadden noted, it wasn't a game for the highlights reel but that really didn't matter.
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 12 (Shaun Johnson try; Issac Luke conversions, 3 penalties).
Sydney Roosters 10 (Mitchell Aubusson, Conor Watson tries; Sio Siua Taukeiaho conversion).
Halftime: 4-2 Roosters.
Referees: Jared Maxwell and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors | Tuimoala Lolohea; David Fusitu'a, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Albert Vete, Issac Luke, Ben Matulino; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Toafofoa Sipley, Charlie Gubb.