NRL 2021: Depleted NZ Warriors steal win over Wests Tigers to keep playoff dream alive

While the rest of the world was looking elsewhere, NZ Warriors have pulled classic ambush on Wests Tigers, breaking a seven-game losing streak with a 18-16 comeback victory at Brisbane.

After an embarrassing loss to South Sydney last week, coach Nathan Brown admitted his team's playoffs hopes were basically over and his bosses seemed to agree, releasing captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck early to pursue the next stage of his career in rugby union.

With a mounting casualty list that includes spiritual leader Tohu Harris, Addin Fonua-Blake, Chad Townsend, Wayden Egan and Jack Murchie, with new hardman Matt Lodge suspended already and veteran Leeson Ah Mau also farwelled to return home, the Warriors were forced into drastic measures just to confirm a line-up.

Peta Hiku returned from injury to captain the team from the halves and teenager Taniela Otukolo was handed his first start at hooker, but when Josh Curran also dropped out of the gameday squad, centre Euan Aitken moved into the forwards and Viliami Vailea made his NRL debut in the backs.

The setbacks seemed to take their toll, as the Tigers built a 10-0 halftime lead, but soon after the restart, Aitken began the comeback with a try and prop Bunty Afoa barged over moments later - both converted by Reece Walsh - to give the Warriors an improbable lead.

Aitken had a second try, when he snaffled a short Wests dropout and waltzed over untouched, but Adam Doueihi's converted try brought the Tigers within two points and the Warriors were forced to dig deep on defence over the final 20 minutes to secure the win.

The result was their first victory since May 21, when the Warriors also outlasted the Tigers 30-26 at Gosford.

"One thing Roger always did was compete well and he certainly showed great leadership when he was at the club," says Brown. 

"I think the boys certainly would have wanted to put a good one in for his departure and for Leeson Ah Mau too, who is one of the more consistent players in the game over the past 10 years."

Despite his diminished roster and offers from other clubs, Brown has ruled out recruiting loan players to make up the numbers.

"Loaning players is not going to help us build our club for next year," he says. "We want to win, but I'd like to win with our own players." 

That mentality almost certainly means Aitken will not return to the centres this season.

"He was outstanding, Euey, and sadly for Euey, he might have round a new home," chuckles Brown.

The Warriors now sit four points outside the top eight, but their unlikely playoff aspirations were further boosted, when Brisbane Broncos toppled North Queensland Cowboys 37-18 later on Friday.

Their final month offers a possible dream run to the post-season, with Cronulla Sharks - without injured half Shaun Johnson for the season - next, followed by Canterbury Bulldogs (16th), Broncos (15th), Canberra Raiders (ninth) and Gold Coast Titans (10th), all outside the playoffs. 

Warriors 18 (Aitken 2 & Afoa tries; Walsh 3 conversions) Tigers 16 (Nofoaaluma, Mbye & Doueihi tries; Doueihi 2 conversions)