Another exceptional defensive performance carried the Vodafone Warriors to a memorable 24-14 win as they gatecrashed Gold Coast's intended party in today's 22nd-round NRL clash at Cbus Super Stadium in Robina.
In a critical match which pitted seventh (Gold Coast) against eighth (Vodafone Warriors) the visitors had all the answers in one of their best displays of the season to surge into seventh spot on 24 points.
Level 10-10 at halftime, they made three key statements in the second half to take control of the contest, surging to their 10th win of the season and their sixth in their last nine games.
They also again underlined the quality of their defensive work which has become the hallmark of their game over the last 10 weeks (conceding an average of less than 17 points a game). The match stats recorded them making 320 tackles and missing just 16 tackles compared to Gold Coast making 292 tackles and missing 33; the Vodafone Warriors also made only nine errors.
Neutrals could find so much to enjoy about the contest and the occasion. It had plenty on offer from the get-go.
The focus was almost exclusively on Jarryd Hayne making his return to the NRL, ensuring a monster crowd of 25,109 at Cbus Super Stadium but his presence and the carnival atmosphere at the ground were the least of the Vodafone Warriors' concerns.
In the first set of the match, they lost possession late in the tackle count near halfway.
From the scrum the Titans mounted pressure straightaway, bombing to their left where David Mead won the ball, shifted to Josh Hoffman and he claimed a try. On first impressions it seemed he didn’t have control, referee Jared Maxwell sending it to the bunker as ‘no try’ and replays confirming Hoffman had indeed bounced the ball.
After saving that try, the Vodafone Warriors immediately marched downfield, hitting the Titans on both sides and forcing two repeat sets, first by drawing an error and then a goal-line dropout.
From the dropout they constructed another superb set, going to the right where Shaun Johnson straightened the attack, drew in defenders, shifted to Tuimoala Lolohea and he fed centre David Fusitu’a who squeezed in wonderfully in the corner for his 11th try of the season.
With Issac Luke side-lined and Johnson not yet preferred for goal-kicking duties, Lolohea had the responsibility but his attempt was wide leaving the score 4-0 after seven minutes.
The Titans earned time at the Vodafone Warriors’ end, first through forcing an error and then two goal-line dropouts.
From the first goal-line dropout Fusitu’a snuffed out the try-scoring threat but the Titans couldn’t be denied a second time with captain Ryan James driving over beside the right-hand upright in the 19th minute. Ash Taylor converted and the home side was 6-4 up. It would be the only time they led all day.
By the 26th minute the Vodafone Warriors had regained the lead, due reward for throwing plenty of attack at the Titans. The beneficiary was second rower Thompson, held up a few minutes earlier but getting the ball down this time under some defensive heat. Lolohea converted to put his side 10-6 ahead.
Only minutes later Gold Coast responded, creating numbers on their right to give ex-Vodafone Warrior Konrad Hurrell an easy run-in to score against his old club. Taylor’s conversion attempt was well wide to leave the sides level at 10-10.
In the last minute of the half the Vodafone Warriors had a set on attack, a short side play from centre Solomone Kata giving his wing partner Manu Vatuvei the chance to take on a defensive wall. He made it across the line but four Titans players stopped him getting the ball down.
The second half was just four minutes old when the Vodafone Warriors made their mark. With some audacious play they kept the ball alive to their left for Lolohea to roll in a last tackle kick for yet another goal-line dropout.
From the repeat set Johnson was heavily involved, jumping into dummy half, working a run around and throwing a flat no-look pass to a steaming Simon Mannering who surged over for his 55th career try. With Lolohea's conversion the Vodafone Warriors had a 16-10 lead.
They had a shift on defence, producing some wonderful goal-line efforts to withstand concerted pressure from the Titans, most notably Ben Matulino with a superb save on Nathan Peats.
Finally they came out of their own end with Vatuvei, Fusitu'a and Ken Maumalo providing power running out of defence. Soon after Vatuvei put a stinging shot on Hurrell to jolt the ball loose but the Titans averted danger from the resulting attacking set.
On the 57-minute mark the Vodafone Warriors were under more pressure after a Lolohea knock-on. The Titans had a gilt-edged opportunity to push for points only for the hyped-up man of the moment Hayne to throw a wide pass Fusitu'a intercepted.
He seemed likely to go all the way but was run down by Hurrell 15 metres out. Playing it quickly the Vodafone Warriors went right to Johnson, he drew in defenders and fed a steaming Kata on the inside for the centre's 11th try of the season and his first in seven games since scoring against Newcastle.
Lolohea couldn't convert from a handy angle, a miss which could have been costly, especially when Maumalo put down an testing bomb near his line to give the Titans another scoring opening.
They went wide to the right but Kata intercepted Taylor's pass and ran away putting a great fend on Anthony Don to score his second and extend the lead to 24-10 after 67 minutes. That took Kata to the top of the club's try-scoring charts on 12 (it was his 24th career try). This time Johnson took the conversion attempt but shot wide to the left.
The alarm bells rang again when Gold Coast claimed possession from the kick-off and then earned a repeat set from a goal-line dropout. The Vodafone Warriors' defence, so exceptional throughout, answered the call again when Lolohea swept up a last tackle kick.
Into the last seven minutes the match went, the Vodafone Warriors still leading by 14 points but now they lapsed.
Hayne pushed through a grubber, Lolohea tried to hack it into touch but the attempt was blocked by Don, the ball sitting loose over the line for him to force and cut the deficit to 14-24 with seven minutes to play after Taylor again missed the conversion attempt.
It was a slip-up but it proved to be just a blip as the Vodafone Warriors professionally closed out the match for their sixth straight win at Cbus Super Stadium and their 11th victory in their last 12 matches against Gold Coast.
There were so many individual displays to savour, not least Johnson's man of the match show which included two try assists and two line break assists as well as a key hand in the try Fusitu'a scored.
Kata went head-to-head with former team-mate Hurrell and, while he conceded early points when Hurrell scored in the first half, he finished the match well ahead, not only with two tries but making a game-high 172 metres from 10 runs including seven tackle breaks (Hurrell made 92 metres from nine runs, had just one tackle break and made three errors).
Mannering was also astounding again. Apart from his vital try, he made 113 metres from 13 runs and effected 42 tackles without a miss.
So much of the pre-match commentary had featured pundits and former players lauding Gold Coast's efforts in recent times, most of them confident the Titans would prevail on the back of Hayne's arrival. What will they all say now? This was a significant victory for the Vodafone Warriors. Will they now earn some plaudits as they seek to reach the NRL finals for the first time since 2011?
Ahead of them are three home games in the last four rounds of the regular season, the first against South Sydney, cruelly beaten 15-14 by Melbourne in extra time last night.
The Rabbitohs' season has been hugely disappointing but their effort against the Storm highlighted the magnitude of the challenge they'll provide at Mount Smart Stadium next Saturday night (7.30pm kick-off).
Cbus Super Stadium, Robina
Gold Coast Titans 14 (Ryan James, Konrad Hurrell, Anthony Don tries; Ash Taylor conversion).
Vodafone Warriors 24 (Solomone Kata 2, David Fusitu'a, Bodene Thompson, Simon Mannering tries; Tuimoala Lolohea 2 conversions).
Referees: Jared Maxwell and Gavin Reynolds.
Vodafone Warriors | Tuimoala Lolohea; Ken Maumalo, David Fusitu'a, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Jazz Tevaga, Albert Vete; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Ben Matulino, Blake Ayshford.