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Graeme Norton's Vodafone Auckland Lions claimed another top four scalp - and their fourth straight win - when they beat the table-topping Bulldogs 27-26 in a thrilling New South Wales Premier League clash at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night. Not for the first time this season, the Vodafone Auckland Lions gave their opponents a handy start, allowing the Bulldogs to leap to a 12-0 lead inside nine minutes.
The visitors, with experienced first grader Daniel Holdsworth running the show, were seemingly on course for another victory after tries by Tim Winitana and Trent Cutler.
The Vodafone Auckland Lions were trying to settle in after losing Todd Byrne to the Vodafone Warriors for the injured Wade McKinnon, having also seen Patrick Ah Van back in the NRL side earlier in the week for the unavailable Michael Crockett.
That forced a reshuffle with Aidan Kirk moving from the centres to fullback, Miguel Start going onto the right wing and Lui Toimoana shifting off the bench to replace Kirk in the centres.
There was a hint 17 minutes into the match that the side would wake up when second rower Sonny Fai took on the line and off loaded to give Toimoana a try.
And there was even more optimism when Fai had his 14th try of the year, charging through the Bulldogs' defence with ease. Tony Martin couldn't convert either try but the score had been trimmed to 8-12 before both sides traded converted tries - Toimoana with another courtesy of Fai - making the halftime score 18-14 in the Bulldogs' favour.
Two key plays in the first 17 minutes of the second half suggested the Vodafone Auckland Lions were on course to take the contest.
The Bulldogs were embarrassed when Lance Hohaia stole a try and winger Malo Solomona hared away for his 15th try of the season, scampering 70 metres for a try Steve Buckingham converted for a 26-18 lead.
It should have been the platform to go on but instead the Bulldogs were able to reply with two tries to former Brisbane winger Leon Bott. Critically, though, Brent Crisp couldn't convert either of them leaving the two sides locked at 26-26 and facing a frantic final few minutes.
The Vodafone Auckland Lions have slipped up to lose tight tussles in the past but they kept their poise this time, Hohaia slotting a wobbly, long-range field goal for an exceptional win. It lifted the home side to 22 points with three rounds to go. The Vodafone Auckland Lions are guaranteed two points from their third bye of the season in round 24. Before then they face Canberra next weekend and finish away to Penrith in the final weekend of the regular season. If they win both matches, they will finish on 28 points, which should be enough to make the play-offs.
They head into the last phase of the minor premiership as one of the form teams, having now beaten three of the top four sides in recent weeks - Balmain Ryde, Newcastle and now the Bulldogs.
At Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland:
Vodafone Auckland Lions 27 (Lui Toimoana 2, Sonny Fai, Lane Hohaia, Malo Solomona tries; Steve Buckingham 3 conversions; Lance Hohaia field goal).
Bulldogs 26 (Leon Bott 2, Tim Winitana, Trent Cutler, Billy Ngawini tries; Brent Crisp 3 conversions). Halftime: 18-14 Bulldogs.