The NZ Warriors made the longest excursion in the NRL and virtually find themselves at the point of no return in Perth tonight as an agonising defeat in their second grand final rematch with premiers Manly diminished their prospects of featuring in this year's NRL finals series.
Needing to rebound from back-to-back defeats to stay in touch with the top eight, the ploy to emulate basketball's champion New Zealand Breakers and turn up in Western Australia only the day before the game did not translate to the 13-man code as Manly fought back to claim a sensational 24-22 victory, their sixth in a row against the team they beat in the 2011 title decider.
By slumping to their third successive loss the 11th-placed Warriors also became the first team to concede an 18-point lead in successive weeks in the competition's history.
The Warriors only arrived in Perth at 1am Auckland time on game day and will have a sleepless night after tiring noticeably on the home stretch.
A quick fire double by Daly Cherry-Evans after a Kieran Foran touchdown with 12 minutes to play enabled Manly to complete their recovery from a 22-6 deficit, reinvigorate their title defence and potentially end the Warriors campaign with five games remaining.
A Foran chip set up the decisive try for his halves partner with two minutes to play and co-captain Jamie Lyon finally nailed a conversion to mark his 200th first grade game in appropriate style.
Manly had to survive one last desperate attack from the Warriors but when David Williams batted a Shaun Johnson kick dead to deny stand-in captain Manu Vatuvei his 100th career try, the Sea Eagles could reflect on a remarkable comeback.
Vatuvei's 99th touchdown four minutes after the resumption appeared to give the Warriors the leeway they needed but Manly, despite frequent handling errors, regrouped.
In a repeat of last weekend's clash with Newcastle at Mt Smart the Warriors cruised to an 18-point lead before conceding a try on the siren when Foran's astute nudge sat up for Jorge Taufua to streak 60-metres run to the line.
Vatuvei eased the anxieties but the concession of needless back-to-back penalties proved the catalyst for Manly's resurgence.
Williams narrowed the gap to 12 entering the final quarter and then Foran skirted over, taking advantage of an incapacitated Konrad Hurrell who returned to the field despite struggling with an ankle injury.
Only Lyon's inaccuracy from the kicking tee gave the Warriors respite - he missed three attempts before landing the one that counted.
The Warriors looked in control until late in the third quarter.
Fullback Kevin Locke drew first blood in the eighth minute of a niggly contest soon after his nose gushed after he slid into a Steve Matai stiff arm when running the ball out of defence.
The Warriors swept downfield on the back of the resulting penalty and after a Jorge Taufua spill put the visitors in prime attacking position and Locke duly loomed to take a perfect in pass from Feleti Mateo and crash over -the first of the dynamic second rower's try assists.
The creative ball runner supplied the killer pass for Johnson to double the lead in the 17th minute and the halfback created the third just after the half hour when Vatuvei atoned for a couple of handling lapses by climbing above Williams to grab a cross kick and flick the ball to Lewis Brown.
Both sides suffered collateral damage in the opening quarter-Hurrell aggravated an ankle injury during his second carry and was assisted to the sideline but was able to return in the second spell while Sea Eagles prop Jason King suffered a rib injury when crunched by Vatuvei and ended the contest in hospital.
Hurrell's departure facilitated Sebastine Ikahihifo's first grade debut as he slotted into the second row and Ben Henry moved to the centres.
Maloney could be in trouble with the match review committee for his high shot on fullback Dean Whare while Anthony Watmough also faces an anxious wait after being placed on report for a suspected chicken wing tackle on Locke late in the first half.
They return home tomorrow to prepare for Cronulla's visit on Saturday.
Manly Sea Eagles 24 (Daly Cherry-Evans 2, Jorge Taufua, David Williams, Kieran Foran tries; Jamie Lyon 2 goals) NZ Warriors 22 (Kevin Locke, Shaun Johnson, Lewis Brown, Manu Vatuvei tries; James Maloney 3 goals). HT: 18-6
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