Ryan Hoffman's 73rd-minute try snared the Vodafone Warriors a heart-stopping 26-22 comeback win over Newcastle in today's NRL season opener at Mount Smart Stadium.
After the home side had led 20-8 at halftime, much of the second half belonged to the visitors with tries to prop Jack Stockwell and a double to left wing Nathan Ross giving them a 22-20 advantage after 66 minutes.
With eight minutes to go the Vodafone Warriors were still behind against a side they've had the measure of consistently over the last 10 years. Indeed, they went into this contest with 10 wins in the last 11 meetings at Mount Smart.
The clock ticked down to just eight minutes left but then the Vodafone Warriors found a way through, Hoffman taking a tough Ata Hingano pass and burrowing over the line to give them the lead again. It took time to be ratified by the bunker but when it was the crowd went off.
Shaun Johnson converted and the Vodafone Warriors then showing composure to close it out for their first first-round success since beating Parramatta 26-18 at Mount Smart Stadium in 2009.
Earlier centre David Fusitu'a had scored in the 27th, 37th and 40th minutes as the Vodafone Warriors finished the first half in blitzing fashion to convert an early 0-8 deficit into a 12-point lead.
The Vodafone Warriors' late first half surge had followed a tenative opening in Stephen Kearney's first NRL match as the club's head coach.
The Knights finished the opening set well with a Brock Lamb bomb to Ken Maumalo on the left wing. He took it well and headed out of his 20 but lost possession in the tackle.
The Knights pressed on the repeat set testing the Vodafone Warriors' goal-line defence. They were equal to it, turned the ball over and then picked up a relieving penalty.
From the next set the Vodafone Warriors powered back upfield on the end of strong carries from Ryan Hoffman and Albert Vete. Lovely hands kept the ball alive, Johnson released and spearing into the Knights' red zone where he connected with right wing Tuimoala Lolohea. Lolohea dinked the ball into the in-goal to force a goal-line drop out.
The next set Johnson's slick grubber produced another restart for the Knights from their goal-line only for the set to break down when Vete was ruled to have lost possession (replays showing the ball had been stripped).
It proved an expensive officiating error. The Knights capped the following set by pumping high with centre Peter Mata'utia chasing through to take it on the fly to score. With Trent Hodkinson's conversion the visitors had a 6-0 lead after 11 minutes.
When the Knights came at the home side again on the back of another penalty, a big defensive stint was required again to deny the visitors a second try. A penalty was conceded, Hodkinson opted for the two instead to take the lead out to 8-0 after 22 minutes.
It took time - 27 minutes in fact - for the Vodafone Warriors to open their 2017 account. It was quality, though.
Simon Mannering, at first receiver, went out the back to Johnson who teased the defensive line and then shipped the ball to a rampaging Fusitu'a to score his 21st try in his 34th game. Johnson's conversion was sweet leaving his side just 6-8 behind.
Two more decisions had the Vodafone Warriors under the pump. First a dubious pass wasn't called and moments later Maumalo was ruled to have knocked on tidying up a last tackle bomb. Replays suggested otherwise but there was some karma as Newcastle immediately lost possession shifting the ball from the scrum.
Even better, Bunty Afoa snaffled the loose ball and the Vodafone Warriors produced a fabulous set, thundering downfield, going left to captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck who delivered a sweet ball for Solomone Kata to add yet another try to his career tally (his 28th in his 46th appearance). Johnson couldn't convert from wide out on the left but the Vodafone Warriors were ahead for the first time after 34 minutes.
Three minutes later it was 14-8 in remarkable circumstances. Johnson's last tackle bomb to the right was threatening to float into touch but a hungry Lolohea tracked it down, leapt to catch the ball over the sideline and then basketball-passed it infield in the same motion for Fusitu'a to grab his second try.
No conversion again from Johnson out on the right edge of the field but even though halftime was fast approaching the Vodafone Warriors weren't finished.
Showing admirable patience and purpose they took the last set of the half right to the final seconds when Johnson ran at the line. Threatening to go all the way, he was collared close to the line but flicked out an outrageous off load for Fusitu'a to make it a hat-trick in the space of 13 minutes (and 23 tries in 34 games). This time Issac Luke had the kicking duties, converting for a 20-8 lead.
In the opening minutes of the second half, Hingano made a long break to within metres of Newcastle's line. The Vodafone Warriors set up to come back left, Tuivasa-Sheck with a long ball to put Maumalo over but the pass was forward.
Soon after the Vodafone Warriors lost Issac Luke for the rest of the match with a rib injury and the half was only eight minutes old when there was second blow with the workshorse Mannering forced off the field with a neck complaint. On came 18-year-old Isaiah Papali'i to make his debut as Vodafone Warrior #215.
Neither Luke nor Mannering returned, leaving the side with just two fit players - both props - on the interchange bench. Their absences resulted in siginificant upheaval with the Vodafone Warriors stripped of a combined total of more than 460 appearances. Bodene Thompson, in his first match of the season, came on to run at dummy half with Papali'i operating in the middle of the park.
Without the influence Mannering and Luke provide, Newcastle began to make inroads and then struck with tries in the 54th, 62nd and 66th minutes to transform their 12-point halftime deficit into a 22-20 lead.
There were tense moments as the Vodafone Warriors set about checking Newcastle's momentum and then giving themselves an opportunity to settle the result.
When they had the chance, they seized it, the Hingano-Hoffman combination working sweetly to eke out an invaluable two points in a frantic encounter.
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 26 (David Fusitu'a 3, Solomone Kata, Ryan Hoffman tries; Shaun Johnson 2 conversions; Issac Luke conversion).
Newcastle Knights 22 (Nathan Ross 2, Peter Mata'uti, Jack Stockwell tries; Trent Hodkinson 2 conversions, penalty).
Halftime: 20-8 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Dave Munro and Alan Shortall.
Vodafone Warriors | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c); Tuimoala Lolohea, David Fusitu'a, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo; Mafoa'aeata Hingano, Shaun Johnson; Albert Vete, Issac Luke, Charlie Gubb; Bunty Afoa, Ryan Hoffman; Simon Mannering. Interchange: Jacob Lillyman, Sam Lisone, Isaiah Papali'i, Bodene Thompson.