Our partner club in the NRL gets one step closer to the NRL Grand Final with a thrilling last-minute victory over the Wests Tigers!
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Krisnan Inu’s 78th-minute try left the Vodafone Warriors one win away from reaching the 2011 NRL grand final as they twice recovered from a 12-point deficit to beat the highly-favoured Wests Tigers 22-20 in the first semi-final at Sydney Football Stadium on Friday night.
The Tigers were outrageous favourites to prevail, even more so when they led 18-6 at halftime, a margin which had one betting agency offering odds of $7.00 on the Vodafone Warriors to win.
Coming off a humiliating 10-40 loss to Brisbane in last week’s qualifying final, the Vodafone Warriors had earned a second life in the finals by dint of the seventh and eighth ranked sides North Queensland and Newcastle both losing their play-offs last week.
However, the chances of redemption had seemed bleak as they went 0-12 down early on and 6-18 close to halftime. Possession was heavily against them as they were forced to subsist on a diet of just 14 sets in the first half while the Tigers had 21 sets; the penalty count also favoured the Tigers 4-0.
But, galvanised by coach Ivan Cleary’s passionate halftime address, the Vodafone Warriors transformed the contest in the second half by scoring three tries, Inu’s match-winner coming with only two minutes left to give them the lead for the first and only time in the game. They also had to contend with the penalties going 9-4 the Tigers’ way.
The upshot is the Vodafone Warriors will travel to Melbourne to face the minor premiership-winning Storm in the second preliminary final at AAMI Park next Saturday night, knowing victory would earn them an appearance in the 2011 NRL grand final on October 2, what would be just their second shot at the title in 17 seasons in the competition. It’s only the fourth time the Vodafone Warriors have qualified for the preliminary final; they succeeded at their first attempt by beating Cronulla to reach the 2002 grand final but fell at the same hurdle to Penrith in 2003 and Manly in 2008.
Friday night’s victory could scarcely have been more dramatic. Throughout the week the Tigers had been talked up by almost everyone, any number of judges rating them certainties to make and win the grand final with the match against the Vodafone Warriors seemingly of little consequence. Such a judgment wasn’t at all unreasonable after prop Keith Galloway, halfback Benji Marshall and hooker Robbie Farah all found an easy passage to the try-line in the first half.
The Vodafone Warriors had looked likely when in possession, a searing Kevin Locke break opening the way for James Maloney to score his 19th NRL try. They were, however, struggling defensively, especially on their own line.
In the second half they tightened up markedly in a spell which would see them complete a remarkable 18 of 19 sets. Such dominance was turned into an early second half try when halfback Shaun Johnson’s lovely short ball gave second rower Feleti Mateo his fifth try of the season. With Maloney’s conversion, the margin was down to 12-18 and it was game on.
Immediately, though, the Vodafone Warriors gifted the back to the Tigers, resulting in a Benji Marshall penalty – what would be their only second half points – which improved the lead to 20-12. The decision to go for two points seemed conservative when the Tigers once again had momentum in their favour … not that the Vodafone Warriors had any complaints.
They kept to their game plan, working to create a level of pressure the Tigers couldn’t cope with and, soon enough, the break came.
With the penalty count 6-2 against them at the time, the Vodafone Warriors gained relief with two penalties of their own, enabling them to build pressure for Lance Hohaia to surge across from dummy half to leave the Tigers just ahead 20-18 with 15 minutes to play.
The Vodafone Warriors sought to aim aerial attacks for Inu to feed off at right centre but initially the bombs didn’t quite hit the spot. In the 78th minute, Johnson tried again, Inu rose to tap the ball back, Lote Tuqiri couldn’t clean up the loose ball and Inu latched onto it to dot down at the second attempt. The try needed a few views before the video ref was convinced but finally the call came in the Vodafone Warriors’ favour.
While Maloney couldn’t convert, they then defused a short kick-off by the Tigers – Inu the saviour – and saw off their opponents for something of a breakthrough finals victory. Not since the semi-final against the Sydney Roosters at Mount Smart Stadium in 2008 had they won a play-off; that season they lost a week later to Manly at the Sydney Football Stadium before being beaten by Gold Coast in week one of the finals at Skilled Park last year and then Brisbane last week.
With 10 points Maloney took his season’s tally to 192, topping his 188 points last year, the second best by a Vodafone Warrior in a season.
Inu, playing at centre for only the second time this year, was a match-winner but heroes were to be found everyone. One of them was undoubtedly winger Manu Vatuvei. He recovered from his disappointing effort against Brisbane last week with a potent performance, carrying the ball strongly as he topped 100 metres from 13 high quality runs and also making eight tackle breaks. Kevin Locke, Ben Matulino, Jacob Lillyman, Lewis Brown and Maloney also topped 100 metres while Micheal Luck led all tacklers with 45 tackles.
The Vodafone Warriors arrive home on Saturday afternoon and will have a rest day on Sunday before beginning their build-up on Monday for next Saturday night’s preliminary final against Melbourne.
At Sydney Football Stadium, Randwick
Wests Tigers 20 (Keith Galloway, Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah tries; Benji Marshall 3 conversions, penalty).
Vodafone Warriors 22 (James Maloney, Feleti Mateo, Lance Hohaia, Krisnan Inu tries; James Maloney 3 conversions).
Halftime: 18-6 Tigers.
Referees: Jared Maxwell and Shayne Hayne.
Vodafone Warriors: Kevin Locke; Bill Tupou, Krisnan Inu, Lewis Brown, Manu Vatuvei; James Maloney, Shaun Johnson; Russell Packer, Lance Hohaia, Jacob Lillyman; Ukuma Ta’ai, Simon Mannering (c); Micheal Luck. Interchange: Sam Rapira, Feleti Mateo, Lance Hohaia, Ben Matulino.