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Simon Mannering was forced to watch half of his party from the sidelines but the Warriors eventually celebrated one of the club’s greatest occasions in style by holding off Canberra 20-16 in a gripping final-round encounter.

They were forced to push on without Mannering, who departed with a concerning sternum injury just after halftime.

The seesawing clash at a sold-out and slippery Mount Smart Stadium was the perfect dress-rehearsal for the Warriors’ long-awaited return to the finals, with the ultra-committed Raiders playing like they were still in contention.

After surrendering an early lead, the Raiders twice fought back to draw level before a pair of late Shaun Johnson penalty goals proved the difference.

It was undeniably patchy from the Warriors, who looked set to run away with it on a couple of occasions before dropping off. But a gritty and impactful forward-pack display led by Agnatius Paasi, Tohu Harris and Adam Blair was a major positive ahead of the high-stakes games to come.

Flashes of class from the likes of Johnson, Mason Lino, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Peta Hiku were enough to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

Their final finishing position will be decided over the weekend, but the Warriors have few reasons to fair any week one permutation that gets thrown their way.

The Warriors seemed to be getting on top in the early arm-wrestle but a brilliant 40/20 from Sam Williams in the 12th minute swung the momentum.

The Raiders capitalised through Josh Papalii, who crashed over from close range off a deft – but questionable – Josh Hodgson pass.

Just as the visitors started stamping their authority, though, a penalty in possession put the Warriors on attack and Tuivasa-Sheck sent Solomone Kata over.

Johnson hit the upright from out wide to leave the Raiders 6-4 in front.

But their lead didn’t last long: Johnson combined with Hiku, who produced a freakish flick pass for David Fusitu’a to dash in for his 22nd try of the season – just one shy of Francis Meli’s club record.

Canberra levelled up at 8-all with a Williams penalty goal at the 34-minute mark after repelling another Warriors raid.

The Raiders had clearly come to upset the Warriors’ soiree and Joey Leilua put an exclamation mark on a solid first half by creaming Mason Lino in a monster tackle.

Clearly distressed during the break, Mannering succumbed to his injury just one set in to the second half but the Warriors made the perfect start.

Hiku slid over out wide thanks to slick lead-up work from Lino and Johnson, who drilled the conversion from touch then a penalty goal a couple of minutes later for an eight-point advantage.

The Warriors let the Green Machine back into the contest with 25 minutes left, Jordan Rapana coming up with a trademark piece of sideline-defying magic to keep a Hodgson kick in play. Kata bungled the clean-up to gift Elliot Whitehead a try.

Williams slotted a tough conversion then squared up the scoreboard at 16-all in their ensuing possession.

Johnson inched the Warriors back in front with 14 minutes to go after he was taken out in a potential tryscoring position by Luke Bateman, who could easily have found himself in the bin.

A somewhat more curious call to take the two points on offer a couple of minutes later gave the Warriors a 20-16 lead – and it almost backfired big-time.

On the Raiders’ next possession Rapana came within a Blake Austin fingertip of setting up a sensational equaliser. Jazz Tevaga coughed up the ball from the resultant scrum and Williams went over, only to be denied by an obstruction call.

The Warriors scrapped and scrambled their way through the last five minutes but managed to hold off another couple of frantic Raiders assaults and seal the two points.

Few wins in 2018 have been as hard-earned and in slippery conditions with a couple of front-liners missing, it was a quality effort and an ideal September warm-up.

And in a season that has delivered so many epic moments for the Warriors, perhaps the most poignant and heart-warming came post-match as Mannering delivered an emotional speech to the adoring Mount Smart throng.

The club and its fans will sweat on Mannering’s fitness for the finals – they need their spiritual leader on deck.

Where they play next week is still very much up in the air, but losses to Penrith and St George Illawarra would guarantee the Warriors return to their fortress next weekend for their biggest match in seven years.



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