A dramatic last-gasp try and touchline conversion after the full-time siren from centre Junior Pauga earned the Vodafone Warriors a 26-26 draw with the Wyong Roos in a cracking Intrust Super Premiership top-of-the-table showdown at Morry Breen Oval today.
In a high-quality contest that see-sawed all day, the one point secured by the Roos was enough to clinch the minor premiership as some consolation for being run down at the death, while the draw almost secures the Vodafone Warriors a top-two finish ahead of the finals campaign.
Astonishingly it was their fourth draw this season, taking them to 34 points ahead of their final regular season clash against the bottom-placed Wests Tigers at Mount Smart Stadium next Sunday (August 27).
Today's match certainly lived up to the billing of a clash between the top two sides on the ladder although the Vodafone Warriors got off to a dreadful start when hooker Manaia Cherrington was concussed attempting to tackle Wyong prop Lindsay Collins in the opening set of the match.
Cherrington was helped off the field and took no further part in the match. Vodafone Warriors skipper James Bell took over as the predominant dummy half for the majority of the match with his side down to 16 players almost before the match had started (the Vodafone Warriors also had three players backing up from last night's NRL clash against South Sydney - Charlie Gubb, Ata Hingano and Chris Satae).
After Cherrington's premature departure, both sides then settled into the early arm wrestle with chances at a premium.
After using the stiff southerly breeze at their backs to force field position, Wyong converted it into points in the 19th minute when a Joseph Manu grubber from the right edge evaded the last line of Vodafone Warriors cover, allowing Roos five-eighth Jayden Nikorima to pounce on the ball for the opening try. Mitch Cornish converted for a 6-0 Wyong lead.
The Vodafone Warriors then came back hard superbly into the breeze in the back end of the first half with Cook Islands international fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad making a 50-metre break from broken play 15 minutes from halftime to get field position back for the visitors.
After the Vodafone Warriors earned a repeat set from a penalty on the back of the long break, Nicoll-Klokstad finished the movement off when he stepped through static Wyong goal-line defence in the 28th minute. Pauga hooked the conversion into the southerly breeze and Wyong led 6-4.
The Vodafone Warriors then took full advantage of a Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck error inside Wyong’s 20 metre zone five minutes later. From the ensuing scrum set Bell burrowed over from dummy half near the posts to give the Warriors the lead. Pauga converted to put the visitors up 10-6.
They then scored the best try of the match on the stroke of half-time.
Standoff Sam Cook linked up with second rower Isaiah Papali'i on the right edge before he got a lovely pass away to halfback Zac Santo to burst into the clear and outpace the cover defence to score.
Pauga landed a super conversion into the teeth of the southerly breeze after the halftime siren to give the Vodafone Warriors a well-earned 16-6 lead at the break.
Wyong, fired up by a blast from coach Rip Taylor, launched a second half comeback.
From their first first attacking set inside the Vodafone Warriors’ 20-metre zone, the Roos struck with a clever short ball from Cornsih sending second rower Brock Gray over wide out. Cornish missed the conversion into the breeze, and the Vodafone Warriors’ lead was down to 16-10.
Wyong then secured more good field position on the back of a penalty for a tackle on Roos loose forward Nat Butcher which saw referee Adam Cassidy place Vodafone Warriors forwards Papali'i and King Vuniyayawa on report.
From the penalty set, Cornish turned an inside pass back to prop Eloni Vunakece who barged over through three defenders to score. Cornish converted to level the scores at 16-all.
After the Roos were awarded another penalty seven minutes later for a high shot by Gubb, they worked a slick left side backline movement through the hands late in the tackle count for winger Chris Centrone to score his 14th try for the season in the corner.
Cornish again missed the conversion into the stiff breeze but the Roos were back in front 20-16.
The key play appeared to come with 10 minutes left when Nikorima sparked a left-side shift on the blind for Brock Gray to put in a deft centre kick for Collins to follow through back up the middle to score untouched. Cornish converted to extend the Wyong lead to 26-16.
However, Centrone then made a meal of the restart to gift the Vodafone Warriors possession from the ensuing scrum. A follow-up penalty saw Santo put up a crossfield kick for centre Matt Allwood to leap above Centrone to score in the corner.
Pauga missed the touchline conversion but the Vodafone Warriors still were in the match at 20-26 down with five minutes left.
After receiving a couple of penalties for ruck infringements in the closing stages to set up field position (the second penalty seeing Wyong bench prop Jake Lewis sin binned for a professional foul), the Vodafone Warriors then played hot potato football before the ball found Cook as the final siren sounded. The standoff put in a superb crossfield kick for Pauga to gather and score in the right corner.
The centre then nailed the touch-line conversion to complete the thrilling draw – with a mouth-watering promise of a return bout at some stage in the upcoming finals series.
Morry Breen Oval, Sydney
Wyong Roos 26 (Jayden Nikorima, Brock Gray, Eloni Vunakece, Chris Centrone, Lindsay Collins tries; Mitch Cornish 3 conversions).
Vodafone Warriors 26 (Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, James Bell, Zac Santo, Matt Allwood, Junior Pauga tries; Junior Pauga 3 conversions).
Halftime: 16-6 Vodafone Warriors.
Vodafone Warriors | Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad; Semisi Fotu, Matt Allwood, Junior Pauga, Bureta Faraimo; Zac Santo, Sam Cook; Daniel Palavi, Manaia Cherrington, Charlie Gubb; Ofahiki Ogden, Isaiah Papali'i; James Bell (c). Interchange: Toafofoa Sipley, King Vuniyayawa, Chris Satae, Ata Hingano.
Two tries in the final seven minutes - the second from Junior Pauga in the dying moments - earned the Vodafone Warriors a thrilling 26-26 draw with Wyong in today's top-of-the-table 24th-round ISP clash at Morry Breen Oval in Sydney.
Astonishingly it was the Vodafone Warriors' fourth draw of the season, a result which lifted it to 34 points and just a win - or draw - away from securing a top two spot for the finals when they meet the bottom-placed Wests Tigers at Mount Smart Stadium in the final round of the regular season next Sunday (August 27).
A dramatic last-gasp try and touchline conversion after the full-time siren from Warriors centre Junior Pauga has forced a 26-all draw with the Wyong Roos in a cracking Intrust Super Premiership NSW top-of-the-table showdown at Morry Breen Oval this afternoon.