Wests Tigers delivered a knockout blow to the Vodafone Warriors' 2016 season scoring three times in the last 10 minutes to win today's 25th-round NRL clash at Mount Smart Stadium.
The home side had a 24-18 lead - and had just been denied the chance of a 30-18 advantage by the bunker - as the contest headed towards the final 10 minutes.
Then it came unstuck as the visitors scored through prop Sauaso Sue, standoff Mitchell Moses and centre Kevin Naiqama to nail success and the chance of making the finals.
It meant the Vodafone Warriors have missed finals football for the fifth straight season after being given the chance of staying alive when Penrith beat Gold Coast 15-14 last night.
The grim finish rounded out what had been an end-to-end encounter.
After early penalties were exchanged in the opening minutes, the Vodafone Warriors created some pressure, a wonderful defensive set forcing Wests Tigers to kick from inside their 20.
Albert Vete featured with strong carries, Simon Mannering – celebrating his 30th birthday – off loaded finding the erstwhile Jacob Lillyman in support. The Vodafone Warriors headed left on a last tackle play, wing Manu Vatuvei forced into the unlikely role of kicker. He couldn’t have had a better result, his punched grubber knocked on by Wests Tigers fullback David Nofoaluma.
From the attacking scrum near the Tigers’ line, the Vodafone Warriors hit the go button.
Mannering, at first receiver, shifted to Thomas Leuluai and he had Bodene Thompson running a sweet line to cross against his old club for his sixth try of the season. Back in the side after a knee injury, Issac Luke slotted the conversion for a 6-0 lead after eight minutes.
There was plenty of sharpness with the ball, Mannering popping up regularly. He was there as the play went left, Solomone Kata shifting to give Vatuvei an opportunity to get on the outside of Jordan Rankin. He went 20 metres downfield only to lose possession when he was checked.
Wests Tigers turned the screws, forced a goal-line dropout and put prop Sue over all too easily for his first try following an Aaron Woods off load over the top. Rankin’s conversion had the teams level after 19 minutes.
After Blake Ayshford broke down the right-hand touchline, Shaun Johnson measured a last tackle bomb wide out to the left. Rankin was driven back in-goal after a perfectly-executed chase only for referee Gerard Sutton to rule Rankin had been in the air. Replays suggested otherwise and the decision was costly.
Instead of defending a goal-line drop out set, Wests Tigers had a penalty, headed into good ball territory, went at the Vodafone Warriors up the middle and hooker Dene Halatau put Woods over. Rankin’s conversion gave his side a 12-6 lead after 25 minutes.
In the 31st minute, Luke angled a grubber in goal. It curled away from the chasing Ayshford but delivered a goal-line drop out.
To the left the attack went, Leuluai with a short no-look ball to Ryan Hoffman, the second rower holding it out in one hand to off load to Kata for the centre to score his 15th try of the season. There was concern immediately afterwards as Kata appeared troubled by the hamstring injury which had forced him to miss the North Queensland match but he continued. Better still Luke landed the side-line conversion to tie it up 12-12.
The Vodafone Warriors had the lead three minutes later when Ayshford flapped back a Johnson bomb, no one but Vodafone Warriors players near the loose ball with Mannering collecting the perfect birthday gift to score his 56th career try.
With Luke’s conversion it was 18-12 and there was still the likelihood the home side would add to the total. It looked like they would – twice.
Vatuvei was given room, went down the left-hand touch-line and off loaded inside for Kata to score his second. Well, at least he was set to score until Kevin Naiqama punched the ball out to prevent the try.
From the goal-line drop out the Vodafone Warriors went over again, this time for what seemed to be the dead-set try of the season as the home side spread the ball back and forth across the field before it finally ended up on the left again for Kata to go over. Sutton sent it to the bunker as a try but wanted a check on a possible obstruction when Thompson had produced a critical off load way over on the right. Sure enough, the decision went against the Vodafone Warriors with the bunker declaring an obstruction offence.
It left the Tigers with a defensive penalty to end a first half high on excitement.
The first 15 minutes of the second half were all about the arm wrestle, the stand-off broken in the 56th minute after a Tuimoala Lolohea kick had produced a Tigers defensive scrum feed.
Disastrously for the Vodafone Warriors, wing Josh Addo-Carr, one of the fastest men around, stepped through the defensive line and gassed the chasers to go more than 80 metres for a try wide out on the left. Rankin's conversion restored parity at 18-18.
There was so much going on in this contest, the Vodafone Warriors adding the next chapter of razzle dazzle.
Ayshford broke through from a drop-off from Lolohea, Johnson linked up, jazzed to the right and flung out a wide ball for an unmarked Lolohea. He ran it around closer to the posts and this time Ata Hingano, playing his first NRL match at home, converted for a 24-18 lead with 18 minutes to play. It was a try of some moment, too, the 2000th in the club's history.
Minutes later Johnson was the finisher rather than the provider, racing to the line brilliantly. Sutton had it as a try but once again the bunker ruled obstruction. Cue more frustration from the players, staff and fans who were denied celebrating what had seemed a legitimate try in most eyes.
In the 70th minute that decision hurt even more as the Tigers nailed a 40/20 and Sue had his second try through some poor defence again. Rankin's conversion locked it up again at 24-24.
And then Moses and Sue added the final lethal dose.
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 24 (Bodene Thompson, Solomone Kata, Simon Mannering, Tuimoala Lolohea tries; Issac Luke 3 conversions; Ata Hingano conversion).
Wests Tigers 36 (Sauaso Sue 2, Aaron Woods, Josh Addo-Carr, Mitchell Moses, Kevin Naiqama tries; Jordan Rankin 6 conversions).
Halftime: 18-12 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Gerard Sutton and Alan Shortall.
Vodafone Warriors | David Fusitu'a; Tuimoala Lolohea, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman,Issac Luke, Albert Vete; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Ata Hingano, Sam Lisone, Ben Matulino, James Gavet.