It was Ruben Wiki's night as the Warriors kept the flickering candle of their finals hopes alive with a late win at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday, the celebration of his 301st game providing the emotion to get them over the line for two weeks running.
Wiki has recovered well from the ignominy of a drop to the Auckland Vulcans feeder side to earn first a bench spot then regain his starting position and was again a leading performer as the club marked his achievement.
It wasn't until the 73rd minute that the game was made safe when the Warriors' most consistent performer, Micheal Luck, crashed over to score but most in the 7722 crowd were happy with that and the fact the Warriors pressed to the end and worked newcomer Ben Matulino, who continues to impress, right to the Cowboys try-line in the last seconds.
The precariousness of the Warriors' position in the chase for playoff places, however, was perhaps best verbalised by Parramatta's coach Brian Smith. His Knights also have 18 competition points after unexpectedly beating Penrith 30-18 to keep themselves in the title hunt: "It keeps us in the pack. I think we would have still been in it had we lost but it would have only been myself and my mum who would give us a prayer."
There will still perhaps be just Ivan Cleary, his players and their mums believing the Warriors are good enough to get five wins from their last eight games against the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs, Dragons and Eels away and the Storm, Broncos, Sharks and Panthers at home.
The slippery conditions on Saturday brought lost-ball errors and they robbed the game of continuity. It probably aided the Warriors by reducing the impact of Johnathan Thurston's set-up of play and of his runners.
The Warriors' application and defence was generally good but again they allowed easy points. It was 8-4 at the break after Sonny Fai blew his first chance with a handling error then nailed the second and Aidan Kirk continued to show his finishing ability, the Cowboys replying in the last seconds before the break to make the gap closer than it should have been.
That lifted their second-half effort and the score was 18-14 at three-quarter time.
But Cleary was cool. "I thought we were going to win it most of the game to be honest. I thought we controlled things pretty well. Defensively we were really good tonight. I feel like we are building momentum in terms of our defence."
The Warriors made 300 tackles, the Cowboys 311 but the difference was more marked in the misses, the Warriors 19 to 38 by the visitors. Luck, who has not missed a game in three years at the Warriors, again topped the count with 49 and is second in the NRL stats behind the Titans hooker Nathan Friend.
The Cowboys were workmanlike and committed but lacked attacking flair. Their coach Ian Millward revealed afterwards that Thurston had been playing on with a hernia which was undetected until he underwent a medical before the last State of Origin game.
"He has energy, enthusiasm, toughness and desire - he's the complete athlete. He was the smallest man on the field and he's probably the toughest," Millward said.
There were other contenders for "toughest on the day", including Luck.
Toughest overall longer term, though, Wiki stood out. Banners saluting him were waved in a crowd unfortunately depleted by the All Blacks test but still making plenty of noise. The Warriors flew his mum Tessa in from Melbourne for the occasion and she enjoyed watching her son lead his boy Denzel and daughter Mackenzie onto the field post-match to meet two other league legends. Stacey Jones and Dean Bell presented Wiki with his 300th game jersey, framed and surrounded by photographs from his 16-year career. It was fitting, too, that the Junior Warriors marked Wiki's big night by continuing their march to the finals of the inaugural under-20s Toyota Cup with an emphatic 32-12 win over their North Queensland counterparts. They now sit third on 24 points, Cronulla leading on 29.
The Cowboys were kept scoreless in the first half and again the Warriors showed initiative and attacking prowess in putting together six tries.
Prop Russell Packer missed the game with a foot injury but is due back next weekend against the Dogs.By Peter Jessup Email Peter