The New Zealand Warriors' NRL playoff aspirations suffered a serious setback against the Newcastle Knights today, with a dramatic 28-22 loss jeopardising their hopes of a top-four finish.
A poor start at Hunter Stadium and a lack of accuracy and composure from the visitors on the home stretch enabled the Knights - who are already out of playoff contention - to follow up last weekend's stunning 32-30 victory over the Melbourne Storm with another stirring triumph.
The Warriors, who remain in eighth position with three rounds remaining, rallied from a 14-point deficit before halftime - overcoming the concession of a controversial try - but the Knights were deserved winners on the back of a hat-trick by 18-year-old wing Sione Mata'utia.
Ominously for the Warriors, reigning premiers the Sydney Roosters loom as their next opponents at Mt Smart on Sunday where the home side will have to produce a more cohesive effort and improved goal kicking after Chad Townsend nailed just one of his five attempts.
Although strike weapon Akulia Uate and veteran prop Willie Mason dropped out from the original line-up, Jarrod Mullen did return following an abdominal strain and overshadowed playmaking rival Shaun Johnson, who was making his comeback from a groin injury.
Mullen's class was evident in the 10th minute when a deft chip bounced kindly for rookie wing Sione Mata'utia, who celebrated the call-up as Uate's replacement with his first career try.
Mata'utia, who played the last half hour of the epic victory over Melbourne with a suspected broken jaw, was cleared and then spared a bruising match-up with Uate's usual adversary as the task of combating Manu Vatuvei fell to his older brother Chanel, a dubious birthday present for the 22-year-old.
Joey Leilua doubled the lead when he powered through Ben Henry at the end of the opening quarter, the first time the Warriors have not scored inside 20 minutes since round seven.
The New Zealand side could not quibble with the Knights' advantage following an error-prone and ill-disciplined start though Johnson was incensed when he was prevented from making a tackle on Leilua by referee Gavin Morris. The playmaker moved across to close Leilua down after a Knights' scrum feed 10-metres from their line but collided with the referee before the centre put Mata'utia on a straight sprint to the line for the second leg of his treble.
Warriors captain Simon Mannering complained in vain to Morris after the try was awarded and Johnson was also critical at halftime, labelling the try as "rubbish, rubbish" as he headed to the dressing room.
That description could also apply to the Warriors' collective effort as they gifted the Knights momentum with a string of penalties including high shots that resulted in Mannering and Jacob Lillyman being placed on report.
Johnson made a stilted start to his first game after a three-week layoff - a dropped cross kick and then a pass behind Sam Tomkins when the Warriors mounted a rare attack summed up his initial contribution before the collision with Morris spiked his frustrations.
Facing a 14-point deficit heading into the break the Warriors finally gained some traction into a stiff breeze when David Fusitu'a produced a trademark gravity-defying finish after Leilua botched a Chad Townsend nudge to the right flank and the ball found its way to the rookie wing who forced with the poise of a veteran in the 34th minute.
Vatuvei trimmed the margin further before the interval with a simple touchdown when he bent to collect a Ben Matulino pass, and when Nathan Friend scooted over for a rare try two minutes into the second spell to level the scores, momentum seemed to have switched to the visitors.
However, the Knights regained the lead in the 52nd minute when Mata'utia completed his hat-trick with an off-balance one-handed put down despite a desperate lunge by Tomkins.
A Kurt Gidley penalty emphasised the Knights' determination to play a spoiling role when Feleti Mateo and Matulino delayed a play-the-ball, then Chantal Mata'utia joined the party after a sweeping Mullen pass put him across out wide.
Johnson and Tomkins combined to coordinate Fusitu'a's brace after the Warriors retrieved a short kick-off but that work was undone when an unnecessary off the ball tackle by Mateo allowed Gidley to build a 10-point buffer.
An acrobatic finish by Vatuvei with four minutes to play put the Warriors within a converted try of pushing the contest into golden point but when Leilua prevented a certain try when intercepting a Tomkins pass, the Knights had effectively closed out their second successive nail-biting win.
Afterwards Warriors coach Andrew McFadden was left to rue a classic "lost opportunity" after the team squandered a chance to climb as high as fifth on the NRL ladder.
"It was an important game to consolidate our position on the ladder but we let it go," he said.
"We scored enough points but conceded too many. If we want to be a top team, we just can't do that."
Although McFadden had ample cause to be critical of his players, he excused Townsend's misses.
"They were pretty much all on the sideline, it was tough," he said.
"We just can't be conceding five tries if we want to be a top team. We don't want it to come down to kicks."
Newcastle Knights 28 (Sione Mata'utia 3, Joey Leilua, Chanel Mata'utia tries; Kurt Gidley 4 goals) NZ Warriors 22 (David Fusitu'a 2, Manu Vatuvei 2, Nathan Friend tries; Chad Townsend goal). HT: 14-10.
AS IT HAPPENED
What did you make of the Warriors' ninth-place finish in 2014?