The Vodafone Warriors banked a second straight win with a tough 21-14 victory over the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in tonight's 16th-round NRL encounter at Mount Smart Stadium tonight.
After leading just 8-2 at the break, the home side picked up two more tries - and had two others turned down by the bunker - to improve its win-loss record to 7-8 and keep it right in the top eight mix on 16 points.
Together with the bye last week, the Vodafone Warriors have picked six points in the last three rounds.
Tonight was very much about the past meeting the present with the famous 1977 Auckland team in the house for the start of its anniversary weekend marking its clean sweep of Australia, Great Britain and France 40 years ago almost to the day.
In an inspirational sight, the 1977 players - all but one of the 19-man squad together for the weekend - walked out alongside the Vodafone Warriors before kick-off. The players new and old shook hands in the tunnel before captains Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Dennis Williams led their players out.
Then the former players sat in the stands to watch the modern day ones mix it with the Bulldogs in a predictably guelling contest.
The early heat was applied by the Vodafone Warriors. Right wing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was over the line but was held up and soon after Roger Tuivasa-Sheck gave Nicoll-Klokstad a glimpse of the corner but the opportunity was quickly blocked off.
At the other end, an error handed the Bulldogs possession in good ball, soon followed by a penalty but, rather than keep the pressure on with a repeat set, the two points on offer were taken, Kerrod Holland with the penalty.
The 2-0 lead lasted only four minutes before the Vodafone Warriors conjured up a wonderful response.
Inside their territory, they went to their left edge, nice hands from Ryan Hoffman and David Fusitu'a putting Ken Maumalo in space. He was knocked to the ground but bounced back to his feet, superbly fended off Josh Reynolds and exploded clear, brushing off Will Hopoate and sliding across for an outstanding try (his sixth of the season). Shaun Johnson, back with goal kicking duties this week, slotted the conversion for a 6-2 lead after 17 minutes.
The grind was on.
The tone of the match changed when Issac Luke left the field with a concerning shoulder injury - replaced by Nathaniel Roache - and soon after the battle took on some real edge. James Gavet sparked it up with a crunching shot on Reynolds. When he recovered, the intensity and aggression in the defence from both sides ramped up.
This was a contest typical of any against the Bulldogs but close to halftime the tempo lifted.
Roache shot out of dummy half, breached the line and slipped a pass to Johnson backing up on his hip. The halfback surged away but was barely hauled down when a try was imminent.
With his team's defensive line short-handed, New South Wales Origin back rower Josh Jackson tried to slow the tackle down but went too far and was sent to the bin for a professional foul.
There was no time for another set so Johnson duly took the two points for an 8-2 lead at the break.
The Vodafone Warriors, playing with an extra man, quickly settled in as the second 40 minutes began.
Just three minutes in Johnson shaped to pass but then pushed through a teasing grubber in the same motion. It stopped nicely for centre Blake Ayshford to pounce for his third try in two games following his double against the Titans. Johnson had the extras again for a 14-2 lead.
From the restart, the Vodafone Warriors failed to complete, handing the ball over near halfway. It gave the Bulldogs the sniff they needed, building pressure and converting it into points with former Vodafone Warrior Raymond Faitala-Mariner - replacing knocked out Adam Elliot - scoring against his old club. Midway through the spell there was just six points in this arm wrestle again.
In the 59th minute it looked like it would all be locked up when Greg Eastwood chased down a kick and claimed a try between the posts. Ashley Klein sent it to the bunker as no try and his hunch was right. The bunker found Eastwood had knocked on. A bullet dodged.
The relief was palpable and soon it turned in the home side's favour.
Johnson pounded a kick down towards the Bulldogs' line, the chase was on song and bringing the ball back Bulldogs captain James Graham lost possession.
The Vodafone Warriors reorganised themselves, went to their left and Johnson pushed through a grubber which Marcelo Montoya couldn't handle. The ball spewed clear for Maumalo to collect for his second try - or so the Vodafone Warriors thought. Klein went to the bunker with a try call but it came back no try, Fusitu'a ruled inside the 10 metres.
Undeterred the Vodafone Warriors stuck to their knitting by playing the patient game. When they worked themselves within range they had the singular aim of setting up for field goal, which they did expertly with Johnson nailing the one pointer for a 15-8 lead after 69 minutes.
Back they came and this time a Johnson bomb delivered what seemed to be another try, the ball going loose in the contest and Ayshford crossing. Again Klein referred it as a try but the bunker replayed it and replayed it - and replayed it - before ruling Nicoll-Klokstad had knocked on. The third try rubbed out by the bunker in quick succession.
Just a couple of minutes later the Vodafone Warriors were at the Bulldogs again, Tuivasa-Sheck exploding out of dummy half and going low for a try. Klein went try again but called on the bunker to check once more and this time it was all fine. Johnson's conversion cannoned off both uprights to take the lead out to an unassailable 21-8.
The Vodafone Warriors would have preferred the score-line to remain that way but the Bulldogs would have the final say on the scoreboard with a Holland try.
In the nitty gritty stats, the Vodafone Warriors' completion rate was again impressive - 32 from 40 (80 per cent) - while individually Maumalo made 195 metres from 19 runs and Simon Mannering simply blew the lights out with a phenomenal 60 tackles and no misses as well as 153 metres from 15 carries.
Now the challenge lifts again with the long haul to Perth to face Manly next Saturday. The Vodafone Warriors fly out on Thursday bidding for a slice of history after eight fruitless trips since 1996.
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 21 (Ken Maumalo, Blake Ayshford, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck tries; Shaun Johnson 3 conversions, penalty, field goal).
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 14 (Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Kerrod Holland tries; Kerrod Holland 2 conversions, penalty).
Halftime: 8-2 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Ashley Klein and Peter Gough.
Vodafone Warriors | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c); Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Blake Ayshford, David Fusitu'a, Ken Maumalo; Mafoa'aeata Hingano, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Ben Matulino; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman; Simon Mannering. Interchange: Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Albert Vete, James Gavet.