Vodafone Junior Warriors rolling on again
Saturday 21 July 2012 5:59 PM
It’s not celebration time just yet but the Vodafone Junior Warriors have put themselves in the best possible position as they strive for an extraordinary NYC three-peat.
While the going wasn’t always comfortable in last night’s hard-fought 24-14 20th-round victory over Newcastle, there was ample evidence at Mount Smart Stadium that the back-to-back NYC premiers have absorbed a lot of lessons in recent weeks.
The 10-point win over the Knights was their fifth on end, a streak that followed a tight 10-14 loss to then competition leader Penrith on a night when the Vodafone Junior Warriors owned the game in all areas except where it counted on the scoreboard.
They rebounded in a second straight match on the road only five days after losing to the Panthers. They didn’t dominate the Sharks by any stretch in what was a gruelling tussle in difficult playing conditions. Indeed they were 12-18 behind after 62 minutes and were still six points adrift with eight minutes to play.
But through adhering to the tenets of staying in the grind and building pressure they eventually found joy, collecting two tries in the last eight minutes to win 24-18 in what may well prove to be the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ defining win of the season.
Before that they’d made a spluttering start to the campaign as coach John Ackland was forced to cope with injuries to some of his most experienced players and the expected challenges of working in or blooding newcomers to the grade.
There was a third-round loss to Canterbury-Bankstown – ending a 20-game winning stretch at home – a draw with the Sydney Roosters in the fifth round and then the Vodafone Junior Warriors were run down by Canberra a week later.
While it wasn’t a great beginning they regrouped and embarked on a four-match winning run only to hit one of those train smashes that occur from time to time; this one a 12-54 shellacking by Wests Tigers. A good win over Melbourne followed after the bye before the Penrith loss.
Against that background the Cronulla result has proved to be highly significant, providing a launching pad for following wins against North Queensland (48-16), Gold Coast (38-22), Brisbane (38-22) and the Knights.
At one point the Vodafone Junior Warriors were sixth on the table but their surge and faltering efforts from the other contenders has allowed them to drive through the middle to establish a two-point lead at the top of the ladder (Penrith can draw level on 31 points with a win against the Sydney Roosters today). They’re not yet blitzing opponents the way they often did last year but this year’s model is developing a really tough streak in its armour.
The injury rate and a strategy of giving players at least some exposure to NYC football has resulted in 34 players being used by the Vodafone Junior Warriors so far this season. Ackland derives special satisfaction from the knowledge it’s the performances of many of the less experienced players that have held the side together throughout the season.
On that list are the likes of rookie fullback-winger Peta Hiku who has come from nowhere to become an outstanding contributor plus fellow first-year players David Bhana, Ngataua Hukatai, Ngani Laumape and more recently Trent Bishop along with second-year squad member Toka Likiliki.
They were all to the fore again last night. Likiliki carried the ball 178 metres and scored a try, Hiku made 177 metres in an error-free display, Laumape made 124 metres, Hukatai scored a try and got the assist for another, Bhana came up with 50 tackles and Bishop scored a try, created one and made 85 metres from nine runs.
The Vodafone Junior Warriors hit the fast start button last night to lead 16-0 at halftime and 20-0 soon after the break.
There was quality in each of their first three strikes, a set piece play creating a nice try for Hukatai from a perfectly-placed Mason Lino grubber kick; Lino moving the ball wide and Hukatai laying on yet another try for winger Viliami Lolohea; and Bishop busting out of dummy half, popping a splendid off load to Carlos Tuimavave on his shoulder for the three-year veteran to race 40 metres to score in his 50th career match.
Just after the break Bishop brushed off or bulldozed his way through a collection of defenders on a try-scoring run from dummy half 10 metres out and it was 20-0.
A stuttering phase followed as Newcastle hit back with two tries but Likiliki’s try courtesy of hooker Siliva Havili settled the contest despite Newcastle’s final try.
While the NRL side meets Manly in Perth next Saturday, the Vodafone Junior Warriors will take on the lowly-placed Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval in Sydney next Sunday (1.00pm kick-off).
Beyond that lie their final regular season matches against Cronulla, North Queensland, Penrith, St George Illawarra and Canberra.
At Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Junior Warriors 24 (Ngataua Hukatai, Viliami Lolohea, Carlos Tuimavave, Trent Bishop, Toka Likiliki tries; Mason Lino 2 conversions).
Newcastle Knights 14 (Chanel Mata'utia 2, Lachlan Shipard tries; William Smith conversion).
Halftime: 16-0 Vodafone Junior Warriors.
Referee: Shane Rehm.
Vodafone Junior Warriors: Peta Hiku; Viliami Lolohea, Ngani Laumape, Ngataua Hukatai, Toka Likiliki; Carlos Tuimavave, Mason Lino; Ligi Sao, Siliva Havili, Nathaniel Peteru; Raymond Faitala-Mariner, John Palavi (c); David Bhana. Interchange: Siulongoua Fotofili, Trent Bishop, Albert Vete, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard.