There’s no better time to stage an upset win than in the second last week of the football season. When the Wests Tigers faced off against the New Zealand Warriors at Mt. Smart Stadium on Saturday afternoon, I didn’t exactly expect the Warriors to win, but nor did I expect them to lose either. New Zealand are such a mercurial and inconsistent team that it’s hard to ever really predict which way things are going to go. Yet after an anticlimactic couple of weeks for the Tigers – and, let’s be honest, a pretty frustrating season all round – I was prepared for disappointment of some kind or another. Either the Warriors would hand down a decisive victory, or the Tiges would glimpse victory only to sacrifice it at the last moment.
For the first forty minutes, it felt as if the latter story might well be the case, with the Tigers shifting into full gear immediately but starting to lag a bit towards the end of the opening stanza, culminating with a magnificent play from the Warriors after the final siren that ended with what would have been one of the tries of the 2016 NRL season from Solomone Kata had it now been retrospectively disallowed by the Bunker. More on that crucial turning point for a moment, but for now it suffices to say that it looked like a pattern that Wests Tigers fans all knew well – a sudden burst of conviction followed by an inevitable decline in conviction and focus, especially in defence.
In the last two matches against the Titans and the Panthers that contrast has been especially marked, with the black and gold scoring within the first point of both matches but then losing energy shortly after. In the game against Penrith, in particular, it was impossible to believe that we’d managed such an amazing opening by the time the final siren started. If the 2016 Wests Tigers season has been plagued by issues with consistency and an inability to find the vision necessary to sustain both attack and defence against the full eighty minutes, then last Friday’s game at Pepper Stadium was like a vision of our season in miniature.
Yet from the very outset of Saturday’s match against the Warriors something was different. One of the best litmus tests of how the Tigers are faring – and how well they are likely to perform in any match – is Aaron Woods, and not just because he’s the captain. If there’s one thing you want from a forward, it’s consistency, and yet Woodsy has proved frustratingly elusive compared to the Tigers former big men, sometimes barraging the ball right down the field but just as often allowing the opposition to walk all over him. Compare him to a powerhouse like Jason Taumalolo or Sam Kasiano – heck, compare him to Pat Richards or Keith Galloway – and you can see why he often seems to personify the Tigers’ lack of conviction in defence, even or especially as he’s the team’s skipper and most recognisable icon after Robbie Farah.
From the very beginning of Saturday’s match against the Warriors, however, it was clear that this was going to be one of Woodsy’s very best games of the year – and that’s including all three of his stints with the Blues. One of the weird hallmarks of Woods’ style is that while he may be inconsistent from game to game he very rarely has a truly inconsistent game. I don’t know if it has something to do with the sluggishness of the forwards, or the amount of momentum that a prop needs to really get going, but Woods either tends to be on for the full eighty minutes or off for the full eighty minutes. Unfortunately, it’s more often the latter – at recently – but Saturday was one of those wonderful occasions when it was clear that he’d burst onto the park determined to wreak eighty minutes of damage on the opposition.
Whether it was the urgency of the win – and the pressure of the last two losses – or the particular conditions of Mt Smart Stadium itself that prompted Woods’ push is anyone’s guess. Certainly, away teams always need an extra special surge to meet the Warriors on home turf, and not simply because of the fatigue of the flight and the disorientation of playing in another country but because of the unusual conditions of Mt Smart itself, at least at certain times of day. As a television spectators, the massive rolling hills at each corner and the more casual camera fixtures mean that this is always one of the most disorienting football fields to get a hold on, with the difficulty of fixing a clear horizon line giving the game a bit of a tipsy, vertiginous quality when watched on the small screen.
At the same time, however, the position and architecture of Mt Smart – combined with the necessity of filming games there in Australian time, rather than New Zealand time – means that there are often huge discrepancies between sun and shadow, particularly at the bookends of the season, with the players moving between dark patches and dazzling, blinding areas of sunshine, to the point where it often feels a bit like a summer game and a winter game played on the same field. That discrepancy was particularly clear on Saturday afternoon, with the Tigers’ backline frequently having to poise themselves under the high ball with one hand shielding their eyes against the sun, the very opposite of a the posture an outside back needs to take to convince the team of their security and stability.
What’s more, the Warriors seemed to know the patches and light of darkness by instinct, with Manu Vatuvei, in particular, continually positioning himself right at the cusp between the two, while the whole backline seemed to have an uncanny knack for where how to stand for the perfect kick return even as they were staring straight into the sun. If the camera’s continual efforts to recalibrate its lens to the differences in light intensities was disorienting to the viewer, it must have been all the more of a challenge for the Tigers, especially because this looked like one of the hottest games of the seasons so far, more akin to a North Queensland match than an Auckland match, and up there with some of the scorchers of the late summer that opened this year’s season.
It was great, then, to see Woods open with a brilliant run at the five minute mark, and while he may have lost the ball at the thirteenth minute after an equally brilliant run, he nevertheless almost scored, as well as playing a critical role in setting up Sauaso Sue’s opening try. It felt inevitable, then, when the skipper brought in his own four-pointer at the twenty-fourth minute, compounding it with an equally damaging dash down the field a couple of minutes later. Throughout the rest of the game, Woods offered the same structure and guidance, filling in the void left by Tedesco to operate with something of the custodial presence of a fullback combined with the leadership vision of a captain, in one of his most decisive and definitive performances of the 2016 season.
Speaking of fullback, changing to David Nofoaluma proved to be a brilliant move, with the team’s hardest working player stopping a very dangerous run from Manu Vatuvei at the 15 minute mark and freeing up Jordan Rankin to focus on his kicking game – and with a perfect six from six conversions, the wily winger was one of the key reasons why the Tigers managed to maintain their momentum and lead, more than making up for his performance against the Panthers at Pepper Stadium last week. In fact, so assured was Rankin with the boot that I found myself wondering whether he should be replacing Mitch Moses full time with the conversions, so strange and fantastic was it for a Tigers fan to really feel we could count on the two-pointers to keep us buoyant throughout the entire game.
While Rankin may have tackled some of the trickiest Tigers conversions this season with aplomb – including a particularly difficult angle off the back of Josh Ado-Carr’s try sixteen minutes into the second stanza – let’s not sell Mitchell Moses short either. If Moses’ game has been accelerating exponentially over the last month then this was yet another notch on his belt, with the five-eighth putting in one of the most determined and decisive four-pointers of the 2016 Wests Tigers season, slamming the Steeden to earth after being tackled by the Warriors frontline a metre out from the line. In its weird combination of improbability and inevitability, it felt like the kind of move that Shaun Johnson should have made at a home game at Mt Smart Stadium, and to me formed the final indication that Moses has truly made it into the big time at the back end of this year’s footy season.
Of course, Moses is only one half of a halves pair, and it was fantastic to see him and Luke Brooks do their stuff in the second forty minutes, with the final ten, in particular, feeling like a resume of what they can achieve as a pair when they really put their minds to it. Whether it was the pressure of facing the Warriors without Tedesco, or whether it was the three year anniversary of his magnificent debut for the Tigers at the SCG, Brooks put in ten of his best minutes of footy this year, bringing in a 40/20 at the 70th minute, saving a Warriors try with a tackle on Issac Luke at the 74th minute, forcing a repeat set at the 75th minute and assisting with Kevin Naiqama’s try at the 79th minute. While Naiqama may have planted the Steeden over the line just before the siren, in many ways it felt like Brooks’ four-pointer, and combined with Moses’ try a couple of minutes before it was a double-header that seemed to crystallise every Wests Tigers fan’s hopes and dreams of this most mercurial and promising of halves pairs, especially when Rankin managing to kick each conversion through the posts as well.
Let’s not sell Naiqama short, though, since he offered up the move of the match towards the end of the first half, knocking the ball out of Solomone Kata’s hand as he was about to plant what would have been a certain try for the Warriors and a turning point in the game. As one of the Fox Sports commentators observed, it had the same precision and damage as popping a balloon, and it was so perfectly timed that it almost felt inevitable that Kata would try – and succeed – in bringing home another four-pointer before the break. That he wasn’t permitted the try that was brought in after the siren has been a matter of some controversy over the last couple of days, but from where I was sitting it looked as if there was a fairly clear forward pass in the mix, which unfortunately meant that Kata wasn’t able to culminate what would have been one of the great sets of 2016.
Obviously, as a Tigers fan, I didn’t find it all that unfortunate, yet I can also see why Warriors fans were upset, or why their disappointment was displaced onto criticisms of what – to me – felt like a fairly obvious forward pass. For this was free-flowing football at its finest, as well as possibly the most exciting instance I’ve ever seen of that peculiarly exciting gameplay that occurs after the siren has blown and the Steeden is still in contention. Passed from player to player like a hot potato, the ball changed hands too many times to count and found its way in and around every possible chink in the Tigers armour until Kata finally brought it to ground. During that period – only about twenty second, although it seemed much longer – it was perhaps inevitable that some kind of penalty would occur, but for a moment there it looked like the try that would win the Warriors the match, and the perfect symbol for their effervescence and elusiveness as a football club.
As it turned out, the try that won the game was probably that placed by Josh Ado-Carr at the 56th minute, with the no. 5 scooping up the Steeden and running the length of the field to turn the tide decisively in the Tigers favour. While I’ve no doubt that Ado-Carr will be critical in our match against the Raiders at Leichhardt this weekend, there’s nevertheless something a bit bittersweet about these late moments of greatness as well. On the cusp of really coming to his own as a footy play, it will be difficult to see him take everything he has learned at the Tigers and apply it at the Storm, especially after the Cooper Cronk field goal at Leichhardt this year that still haunts every black and gold fan’s memory.
At the end of the day, though, this was the kind of game where every Tigers player had a role to play. In the best possible way, I momentarily forgot that Tedesco was out for the count – Robbie Farah seems like a distant memory – with the team rallying around to give their all in order to make this weekend’s match at Leichhardt really count. From Tim Simona’s beautiful forced goal-line dropout that led to Sue scoring the first try of the game to Woods’ offload that put Dene Halatau right up at the posts in the previous set, it was a game to remember for the Tigers, as well as one of our most impressive defensive efforts this season, with the boys circling the wagons to prevent some pretty dangerous runs from the Warriors. Let’s not forget Sue, too, who managed to bring in two tries – a pretty impressive effort for a prop and testament to the shared responsibility that the Tigers have been forced to take for their performance in the absence of both Tedesco and Farah.
It was a more sombre outing for the Warriors and a reminder why this team is the most mercurial in the competition. At a home game with so much at stake, the likes of Shaun Johnson, Manu Vatuvei and Solomone Kata should have been able to put up more of a fight, but even with the disallowed try at the end of the first half the Tigers were able to make a pretty dominant display of it. At the same time, the amazing synergy of Brooks and Moses in the last ten minutes was a bittersweet reminder that New Zealand’s much touted Big Three hasn’t really come together as was expected, and while Roger Tuivasa-Sheck may be out with an injury, neither Johnson nor Luke seemed to be able to achieve the kind of unified vision in his absence in the way that the Tigers halves managed to conjure up the spirit of Teddy.
At this point, then, it’s time for the Warriors to recalibrate and reconsider their game plan, especially with the return of RTS next season. With New Zealand set to take on the Eels at home once again it will be interesting to see what they learn from their clash with the Tigers, especially Parramatta will also have something to prove for their last game of the season after such a decisive performance against the Dragons at Pirtek on Monday night. For now, however, let’s all get prepared to support the black and gold at Leichhardt this weekend – bring on the Raiders!