Despite having only two days to prepare, a Vodafone Warriors under-16 side pushed New South Wales champions Newcastle all the way before losing 28-36 in a historic clash at Mount Smart Stadium on Sunday.
The Knights came to Auckland after dominating this year’s Harold Matthews Cup competition.
They lost just once en route to taking out the grand final 28-8 against Canterbury Bankstown.
The Vodafone Warriors 16s gave up a good lead early on but recovered impressively to lead the contest 28-18 before the visitors struck back for an eight-point win.
“The Knights were easily the best 16s side in New South Wales this season,” said Vodafone Warriors general manager football Brian Smith.
“They lost only one game all year and their squad featured no less than seven New South Wales under-16 representatives.
“Our Future Warriors squad featured players from around the country who are part of our programme so for us to bring the players together two days before the game and push the New South Wales champions was outstanding.”
Future Warriors programme manager Jordan Friend was equally excited about the performance.
“Our side featured five players who are able to play for our 16s again next year, so it paints a positive picture about the potential for our Future Warriors squads in the coming years,” he said.
“We had a real development focus to this game, so we’re glad we were able to use this to reward our boys’ hard work.
“The opportunity to test themselves against the best was a real positive experience for our players and well received by families as well.
“It continues to send a message to prospective young players around the country that the Vodafone Warriors offer strong pathway and development opportunities for New Zealand-based talent.”
The Knights started the match strongly with their NSW 16s hooker Noah Nailagoliva standing out from the opening whistle while the Vodafone Warriors took a while to get into the game.
Loose forward Lachlan Crouch opened the scoring for the Knights with a try between the posts before halfback Jonah Pezet took advantage of a defensive hole and scored and converted his own try.
Nailagoliva then made a line break up the middle of the park and offloaded to a team-mate before receiving the ball back to score under the crossbar.
In the second quarter the Vodafone Warriors settled into the match with bench hooker Benaiah Ioelu controlling the game well. Vodafone Warriors forward Heneli Luani and Carlos Tarawhiti began to use their physicality to give the Warriors 16s some momentum.
First Ellerslie hooker Ioelu crossed over close to the line before Tokoroa’s Cassius Cowley went over out wide. Francis Manuleleua’s sideline conversion brought the score back to 12-18.
The Vodafone Warriors kept the momentum going with fullback Ali Leiataua cutting inside to score between the posts again, Manuleleua levelling it up 18-18 with the conversion.
The home side continued to dominate, finishing the quarter with Ioelu darting in for his second try from short range to give his side a 24-18 advantage.
The third quarter opened with standoff Manuleleua intercepting a Pezet pass to go 90 metres to score an unconverted try in the corner.
The Knights rebounded with standoff Taj Blackman stepping inside to cross over, Pezet’s conversion leaving his side just 24-28 behind.
On the back of some nice backline play the Knights went in again, Charlie Thompson scoring and Pezet converting from wide out for a 30-28 lead.
In an injury-interrupted final quarter, the Vodafone Warriors made a few errors before the Knights headed up field and Pezet shrugged off a tackle to seal the 36-28 victory.
Vodafone Warriors awarded their player of the day awards for the opposition to Pezet (best back) and Max Bradbury (best forward) but hooker Nailagoliva was another standout who was behind the Knights’ dominant periods in the game.
The Newcastle Knights selected young bench hooker Ioelu (Ellerslie) and middle forward Manaia Ngataki-Matthews (Turangawaewae) as the Vodafone Warriors’ best while Luani and Tarawhiti (both Pakuranga) were dominant in the second stanza.
At Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 16s 28 (Benaiah Ioelu 2, Francis Manuleleua, Ali Leiataua, Cassius Cowley tries; Francis Manuelelua 3 goals; Cassius Cowley goal).
Newcastle Knights 16s 36 (Jonah Pezet 2, Lachlan Crouch, Noah Nailagoliva, Taj Blackman, Charlie Thompson tries; Jonah Pezet 6 goals).
Vodafone Warriors 16s
Ali Leiataua (Pakuranga Jaguars/Counties Manukau Stingrays/King’s College)
Ben Ake (Pakuranga Jaguars/St Kentigern College
Ben Peni (Papatoetoe Panthers/ Counties Manukau Stingrays)
Beniah Ioelu (Ellerslie Eagles/Akarana Falcons)
Carlos Tarawhiti (Pakuranga Jaguars/Counties Manukau Jaguars)
Cassius Cowley (c) (Pikiao/Te Arawa Rugby League/Tokoroa High School)
Fatiauma Moeahu-Leota (Waitara Bears/Mid-Central Vipers)
Francis Manuleleua (Papatoetoe Panthers/Counties-Manukau Stingrays/King’s College)
Heneli Luani (Pakuranga Jaguars/Auckland Vulcans)
Jacob Laban (Randwick Kingfishers/Awa Rugby League/Wellington Orcas)
Kyson Kingi (Northcote Togers/Westlake Boys’ High School)
Mahaki-Jay Hetet-Wairau (Taniwharau/Waikato Maori Rugby League)
Manaia Matthews-Ngataki (Turangawaewae/Wai-Coa-Bay Stallions)
Ngakohu Walker (Pikiao/Rotorua Boys’ High School)
Salesi Ataata (Pakuranga Jaguars/Counties Manukau Stingrays)
Sebastyan Jack (Marist Saints/Akarana Falcons)
Sione Vaihu (Waitemata Seagulls/Auckland Vulcans/St Paul’s College)
Stanley Iongi (Marist Saints/Auckland Vulcans/Mount Albert Grammar School)
Tamiro Armstrong (Te Arawa Rugby League/Auckland Grammar School)
Te Arahi Paraha (Riccarton Knights/Canterbury Bulls/Te Arawa Rugby League)
Tea-Rani Woodman-Tuhoro (Takahiwai Warriors/Northern Swords/Whangarei Boys’ High School)
Tome Poona (Pikiao Warriors/Rotorua Boys’ High School)
Tony Tafa (Te Atatu Roosters/Akarana Falcons/Kelston Boys’ High School)
Zion Maiuu (Te Atatu Roosters/Akarana Falcons/Kelston Boys’ High School)