Retro Round always has a special significance for the Wests Tigers and the Parramatta Eels. On the one hand, the Tigers have two very different heritages to draw upon – the Balmain Tigers and the Western Suburbs Magpies – both of which have felt increasingly precarious under the pressures surrounding the team and their ongoing tenure at Leichhardt Oval over the last couple of years. On the other hand, the Eels have one of the richest heritages in the game, and it’s that sense of history and tradition that has sustained them during one of the most challenging seasons they’ve ever faced. A recent article in Big League made the interesting point that stories about the Eels sell more copies than stories about any other team, and there’s a widespread sense that the heritage, history and continuity of the game is intimately bound up with the fate of Parramatta.
For all the impersonality of ANZ as a home venue, then, there was something particularly homegrown and intimate about Saturday evening’s clash between the Tigers and the Eels, both of which have come out at the tail-end of this season with something to prove. While the boys in black and gold are anxious to prove that they’ve got a shot at finals footy, the Eels were just as anxious to prove that they could have had a shot at the final eight if the trials and tribulations of 2016 hadn’t got in the way. On top of that, there’s a particular pressure on the Tigers – and on Jason Taylor – to find a new consistency in the wake of Robbie Farah’s demotion: as a team that haven’t won more than two games in a row this entire season, there was a sense that coming up with a back-to-back victory on Saturday evening was a must, especially because they’ll be meeting a renewed Cowboys outfit this coming weekend.
From the very first minutes, however, it looked as if the Eels might dominate, starting up with a real conviction and focus to their defence. Nevertheless, the Tigers responded with an extraordinary surge around the ten minute mark, racking up twelve points in two minutes with a David Nofualuma try, a James Tedesco try and two pinpoint perfect conversions from Mitchell Moses. As the Tigers season has evolved, these three figures – along with Tim Simona, Kevin Naiqama and Luke Brooks – have developed some of the best communicative lines in the game, so it was no surprise to see how seamlessly they managed to sync up during these crucial moments. What was a bit surprising was Moses’ consistency with the boot, which turned out to be a harbinger for one of his very best games in the season, as he managed to outclass last week’s stunning performance against the Dragons.
As the game started to reach the half hour mark, things got exciting, with Michael Gordon, Kevin Naiqama and Tim Simona all managing massive runs that just fell short of the line or were thwarted by penalties. It was to be a recurring pattern through the game – huge sprints and giant bursts of energy that just fell short – giving the standoff a tipsy, vertiginous, adrenaline-packed kind of feeling. Over the last couple of weeks, Simona and Tedesco’s ability to find open space has become one of the Tigers’ major assets, and to their credit the Eels managed to shut down and close off space whenever they could, most spectacularly in a defensive scramble that saw Simona downed just short of the line at the forty-seventh minute. Not surprisingly, things heated up before half-time, as the Eels put in an incredibly sustained attack in the wake of their first try that culminated with the first intercept of Tim Grant’s career and a penalty right on the siren.
In other words, it was a high-speed, amped-up, free-flowing game, full of remonstrating with refs and other players, with possession seeming to switch every couple of seconds during some of the most intense segments. By 2016, even the 2005 Wests Tigers outfit has started to feel retro, so it felt right that the current squad seemed to be channelling their entertaining spirit, with both Moses and Naiqama, in particular, drawing on the spirit of Benji Marshall for a couple of jagged, darting cross-field dashes, most spectacularly from the young five-eighth five minutes into the second half. For me, it was one of the most thrilling Tigers games all year as well as a timely reminder of why the NRL is so keen to speed up the game, not least because this heightened pace and intensity seemed to bring a new kind of conviction to the teams’ defence as well, with three players managing to drag speedster Bevan French over the sidelines in revenge for his spectacular run of the length of the field earlier in the game.
Of course, part of what made the game so great was that the Eels brought a similar kind of elastic, enterprising, entertaining spirit to ANZ. More than in any other game this season, this was a Parra outfit that reflected the full toll taken on the club, with Beau Scott, Corey Norman, Manu M’au, Nathan Peats, Kieran Foran, Semi Radrada all retired, traded or forced to sit out as the team played like a ghost of its former self. Yet instead of resorting to self-pity or apathy, the Eels played with all the joy and abandon of a team that has nothing left to lose, putting in one of their most strangely spirited games of the season. With Luke Brooks out after half-time with a knee injury, Chris Lawrence moved into the halves and the distant possibility of a new space for Robbie, it felt as if anything could happen, as the Tigers were reduced to sixteen men for the second stanza, matching the Eels’ spirited desperation with a fresh attacking intensity of their own.
While the team core all had their part to play in the ensuing victory, special mention has to go to Jordan Rankin, who continues to grow and flourish as a Wests Tigers asset. Sure, he may have had one or two fumbles – dropping the Steeden at the 66th minute could have had pretty dire consequences – but for the most part he’s matured and developed into one of the team’s most reliable and likeable players. Almost a second fullback in style and spirit, he’s safe under the high ball but also quite visionary with his own kicks, coming down with a perfectly placed bomb at the 46th minute that trapped Michael Gordon right on the Parramatta line.
Special mention also has to go to the forwards, with the Tigers almost scoring successive tries from front rowers as Tim Grant hurled himself over the line moments after Sauaso Sue’s four-pointer in what would have been his first try for the game. Whether or not Grant actually put it to ground – he was adamant that he did, Henry Perenara was just as adamant that he didn’t – you know that the defensive intensity has been taken to a new level when it’s the big men who are starting to deliver and attempt tries, and with David Gower also making it over the line moments later it was a great night for the modern day ball-playing forward and fantastic to see this more recent development validated in the midst of Retro Round.
Nevertheless, it was Mitch who was the Man of the Match, with the young five-eighth putting in his best defensive effort of the season, showcasing his newfound consistency with conversions, slipping into the backs to catch a floating Parra bomb and putting in some runs that would have made Benji proud. For my money, the last two weeks will come to be seen as signalling a new era of consistency for Moses, who was on fire all over the field, but especially in the second half, where he followed two penalty goals with a field goal on the 77thminute on the off chance that Parra might manage a converted try and penalty goal in the dying moments of the game. There’s no classier way to go out than a final field goal and the fact that Moses has now managed it two weeks in a row is proof of his growing elegance with the Steeden. As I mentioned last week, one of the worst moments for a Tigers fan this season has been Cooper Cronk’s match-winning field goal during golden point at Leichhardt Oval, and over the last fortnight Moses has gone some way towards cancelling out that memory.
Still, the Tigers will have a job on their hands when they meet the Cowboys at Leichhardt next weekend. With Thurston back on board, North Queensland will be anxious to make up for their loss to the Storm this weekend and to reinstate themselves as finals contenders. Moreover, the Cows are more than used to drawing on small-scale venues – 1300SMILES is about the only home ground that’s more local and convivial than Leichhardt – so they’ll be well pumped to absorb the energy of the opposing crowd into their game. In order to have a shot, the Tiges have to come up with the same free-floating defensive energy they displayed this week. In particular, they have to exhibit a little less caution – taking the penalty kick three times instead of opting for a repeat set might work against the Eels, but you can’t shirk those kinds of opportunities when you’ve got Thurston on the opposite side. This week the Tigers took risks: let’s hope they have the courage to do the same against the Cowboys next weekend.