A left-footed Daly Cherry-Evans field goal broke the Vodafone Warriors' hearts as they went down 14-15 to Manly in golden point extra-time in today's 19th-round NRL clash at nib Stadium in Perth.
A 74th-minute Issac Luke penalty had taken the match into golden point after the teams were locked up at 14-14 after 80 minutes.
Shaun Johnson had a chance to seal it but his 83rd-minute field goal was charged down, Manly collecting the loose ball and eventually setting up for Cherry-Evans to nail his heartbreaker a minute later.
Any notion this was going be a case of a game in sunny Western Australia was well off the mark. As the teams emerged to warm up, predicted rain arrived, adversely affecting any chance of a solid walk-up crowd. Indeed, the crowd was comfortably the smallest the Vodafone Warriors had encountered since trips to Perth became an annual happening in 2012 (attendances had been 20,000-plus in the previous four fixtures).
The weather wasn’t an item of concern for the Vodafone Warriors, nor was the size of the crowd. For them, this had become a contest of critical importance after fashioning an 8-8 win-loss record going into their second bye of the season.
They had suffered a number of significant injury setbacks. Albert Vete, a regular starting prop in recent weeks, wasn’t considered after picking up a hamstring injury at training while Queensland front rower Jacob Lillyman and in-form second rower Bodene Thompson were unable to travel due to ankle injuries.
It led to a reshuffle in the forwards with James Gavet and Charlie Gubb starting in the front row and rookie Bunty Afoa coming into the second row.
The Vodafone Warriors kicked off, defended the opening set well and then put together a solid first set in possession.
Once again, though, they were undone by an early penalty as Manly headed out of its end – and scored points on the end of the repeat set.
Coming at the Vodafone Warriors’ right edge, the Sea Eagles worked an opportunity for the accomplished Tom Trbojevic to score, Jamie Lyon converting for a 6-0 lead.
From the restart Manly made good progress again, a last tackle kick was spilled and ricocheted into an unfortunate Simon Mannering who couldn’t avoid conceding an offside penalty. Lyon went for two points and an 8-0 lead.
At last the Vodafone Warriors had possession but couldn’t complete again as Manu Vatuvei lost the wet ball trying to play it.
Two more penalties followed for Manly as they kept applying all the defensive heat through the mortgage they had on possession. A goal-line dropout was forced, Manly was playing fast and the Vodafone Warriors couldn’t respond as the ‘home’ side went to its left again to put wing Jorge Taufua over in the 13th minute. No conversion from Lyon but the 12-0 lead was reflected in the stats, Manly with a perfect nine from nine sets at that point and leading the penalty count 4-0.
The Vodafone Warriors had to find a way into the contest. They began by completing their next two sets to reduce the defensive pressure they had been under. An illustration of the work they'd endured could be found in the stats for starting props Gavet and Gubb who didn't have one run during their first stints while being forced to make a total of 34 tackles between them.
Finally – after 20 minutes – they were awarded their first penalty of the match and the chance of a repeat set after Vatuvei was taken high. On the last tackle Thomas Leuluai kicked to the left, Vatuvei tapped it back in a contest and the tackle count restarted, followed soon after by a second penalty and then a Johnson kick forcing a goal-line dropout.
The Vodafone Warriors were now creating pressure in textbook fashion. The rewards had to come and they did as they hit a wide right, Johnson going to the line and finding Afoa charging into a hole superbly and carving through for his first NRL try in his second appearance. Luke, again with the kicking duties, was on song to cut the margin to 6-12.
From the restart the Vodafone Warriors completed well again with Trbojevic just getting out of trouble after allowing a bomb to bounce. Manly went down the other end and forced another goal-line dropout when they drove Vatuvei back behind the line.
Again the Vodafone Warriors rallied to turn Manly away, Blake Ayshford cleaning up a kick and attracting a penalty as he headed away from his line.
By now the rain was at its heaviest but the Vodafone Warriors were on song in possession on the repeat set, again setting up their right and using the Johnson-Afoa combination once more for another quality try. Afoa hit a hole brilliantly in a replay of his first try, Luke providing the extras and it was all locked up at 12-12 after 31 minutes.
The anxiety levels went up when the restart was spilled in challenging conditions but the error was defended well again only for the Vodafone Warriors to lose possession soon after as they shaped to mount more pressure on Manly’s line. It was their fifth error of the half while the Sea Eagles had made none in completing 16 of 16 sets.
They threatened through their right in the final seconds of the half but the Vodafone Warriors conceded a penalty, Lyon nudging the goal over for a 14-12 lead.
The possession numbers had evened up in the second quarter but the Vodafone Warriors’ defence – just eight missed tackles – had kept them in it.
In the opening stanza of the second half they created and sustained pressure in an absolute slugfest in the wet. They engineered goal-line dropouts, maintained their defensive intensity and enjoyed good field position.
In the 61st minute they had a chance to level up but Luke missed a penalty from a handy position.
The requirement remained the same. Completing sets was the bare minimum.
In the 65th minute they went left, Thomas Leuluai nudged through a grubber and it sat up for Solomone Kata but he couldn't gather it for the try.
The pressure went on at the other end, the Vodafone Warriors desperately keeping Manly at bay.
They forced an error out of Manly 20 metres out, went to the right and then back to the left finding Vatuvei but on the wet surface he couldn't stay in.
The ball was proving difficult to handle, both sides spilling it in contact.
In the 73rd minute the Vodafone Warriors came back at Manly again, Leuluai bursting clear but checked just short of the line and drawing a penalty when he was impeded trying to play the ball. Luke's penalty evened it up at 14-14 after 74 minutes.
It made for a nervous final few minutes with Manly having the best chance to snare a win in regular time but Daly Cherry-Evans was astray with a field goal attempt.
The Vodafone Warriors flew home straight after the match, arriving in Auckland early on Sunday morning ro prepare for what will be another demanding road trip when they face an in-form Canberra at GIO Stadium next Saturday.
nib Stadium, Perth
Manly Sea Eagles 15 (Tom Trbojevic, Jorge Taufua tries; Jamie Lyon conversion, 2 penalties; Daly Cherry-Evans field goal).
Vodafone Warriors 14 (Bunty Afoa 2 tries; Issac Luke 2 conversions, penalty).
Halftime: 14-12 Sea Eagles.
Referees: Gavin Badger and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors | David Fusitu'a; Ken Maumalo, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; James Gavet, Issac Luke, Charlie Gubb; Bunty Afoa, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Tuimoala Lolohea, Sam Lisone, Jazz Tevaga.