If rumours are correct, then the Easter Monday game between the Eels and the Tigers at ANZ may turn out to be Mitchell Moses’ swansong in Wests colours – and what a strange swansong it turned out to be. In many ways, it felt like two completely separate games – which is to say that it felt like a completely typical Tigers game – as the visitors managed to rack up a 22-10 lead in the first stanza only to fall prey to three successive Parramatta tries in the final twenty minutes.
For that first half, I felt cautiously optimistic that last week’s game against the Cowboys was no fluke, and that we might well be witnessing the first stirrings of a new Tigers spirit in the post-Taylor era (or the post-Webster era, depending on how you look at it). Whether it was the presence of Cleary or simply the absence of Taylor, the Tigers seemed to be syncing with a new kind of energy, supporting James Tedesco and Mitchell Moses who in turn were able to support Matt McIlwrick and Jack Littlejohn to the point where they almost felt like veteran members of the spine, rather than stand-ins for Matt Ballin and Luke Brooks.
That’s not to say, of course, that the Tigers didn’t have any slip-ups, but that they seemed capable of continually revising and self-correcting their play in a way we haven’t seen over the last couple of weeks, producing – gasp – a sense of actually being on an equal playing field with their opposition. So while David Nofoaluma may have let the first try go through for Michael Jennings, he managed to save a four-pointer from Semi Radradra minutes later. Similarly, Aaron Woods might have coughed up the Steeden thirty minutes in, but he was there to catch it when the Eels coughed it up in turn on the following set.
At first, the second half seemed poised to follow the same pattern, with McIlwrick accidentally running the ball to nowhere on a final tackle only to compensate with a brilliant carry on the second last tackle of the subsequent set. Similarly, the Tigers had two moments in the back end of the second stanza when they chose not to take the two – a decision that Moses seemed to spearhead in both instances – reflecting a new level of confidence and conviction in the wake of a sloppy start to the season.
Unfortunately, however, the decision to tap and play didn’t pay off in either case, and if I had to identify a turning-point for the Tigers at ANZ on Easter Monday afternoon, it would have been their failure to take advantage of these two penalty opportunities. If Moses had put them through the posts – and he probably would have, given the position of the ball – they would have been neck and neck with the Eels by the end of the match, instead of seeing a twelve point lead plummet to a four point loss.
As if sensing the change in momentum, the Eels circled the wagons and managed to bring home three tries in ten minutes, two of which were converted just as efficiently by Clinton Gutherson, who put in a very respectable job at both fullback and goal-kicker, playing a role in most of the Parramatta four-pointers as well. Around him, the Parramatta backline shone, with Michael Jennings, Semi Radradra and Josh Hoffman all bringing home tries, and Kirisome Auva’a managing to put eight points at the board as well as spearheading the Eels resurgence in the back twenty minutes.
No man was more central to that effort than Jennings, who put in an Origin-worthy performance that saw him determined to prevent the Eels notching up another loss whatever the cost. Like Greg Inglis, Jennings is the kind of player who really thrives when that kind of humiliation is on the line – would he work as well as a Maroon? – and he burned with the kind of refusal to lie down and die that characterizes his work for the Blues at its very best.
In other words, Jennings played more of a role than his single try would suggest. Not only was he integral to the perfectly timed cascade of passes that set up Auva’a’s first four-pointer, but he was all but responsible for Auva’a’s follow-up effort, thanks to a brilliant combination of speed and footwork that saw him take the Steeden from one wing to the other, where he fed it to Brad Takairangi who set up a deft grubber that found Auva’a at just the right moment. Dodging and weaving his way from one big man to the next, Jennings seemed to disperse the Tigers’ defensive line in his wake – and by the time Radradra scored ten minutes later, it had all but vanished, nowhere to be seen.
In that sense, Auva’a was more of a great finisher than the mastermind behind either of his actual tries, but sometimes that’s just what a centre needs to be, and he did it with aplomb. In fact, it was only a matter of chance that he got to Takairangi’s grubber before Josh Hoffman, so it was poetic justice to see the ex-Titan get down his second four points in Parra colours mere minutes later. Here, as well, Jennings played a role, although it would be a mistake to think that his contribution was all strategy either, since this was one of his hardest, toughest games in weeks as well, as evinced in a terrific, smacking front-on tackle that forced the visitors to cough up the ball at the twentieth minute.
On the other side of the Steeden, do we really need to be reminded at this stage that most of the Tigers key playmakers have potential? From Tedesco’s mad dash at the sixty-sixth minute, to Jack Littlejohn’s perfectly placed chip that allowed Kevin Naiqama to bring in the Tigers’ third try, to Sauso Sue’s barnstorming four-pointer through the Parramatta defensive line, there was no shortage of impressive moments from Cleary’s new team.
Matt McIlwrick, in particular, put in what was probably his most emphatic game with the Tigers so far, helping to set up Moses’ first try, as well as cleaning up the ball at the end of one of Parramatta’s most aggressive sets five minutes before half time. In a perfect coda to his performance over the first stanza he cleaned up once again right on the siren – Parra really looked like scoring – and then ran the ball four times in the first ten minutes of the second half. It felt only right, then, when he slammed through a wall of Parra defenders for the fourth try of the night – a pretty brave move for such a wiry player.
So there can be no doubt that the Tigers have talent aplenty. But talent isn’t really the concern anymore – it’s consistency. It was perhaps a harbinger of the final score, then, that Nofoaluma – arguably the most consistent player on the team after Teddy – had a bit of an off night. Sure, he might have saved Radradra’s try, forced a forward pass from Jennings to Radradra and – most impressively – chased Jennings halfway down the field to prevent what would have been a certain try, in the single most visceral and punishing sprint this season. Still, his game was full of uncharacteristic mistimings and missed opportunities, forcing the rest of the team to compensate with a consistency they couldn’t really muster.
And that brings me back, finally, to Moses. If he gets his mid-season transfer, Monday’s game will function both as his swansong for the Tigers and his first training session for the Eels. Appropriately, then, no other player personified the Tigers’ inconsistencies over the afternoon than Moses, who was responsible for some of their highest highs and lowest lows. On the one hand, he brought home the first Tigers try, thanks in part to McIlwrick’s initiative in running the ball before Parra could set their defence. A quick pass to Teddy was all it took, with the star fullback changing directions abruptly to feed the Steeden to Moses, who scored directly beneath the posts.
Obviously you can’t call this a team try, since only three players involved, but it was a classic spine try – hooker, fullback, five-eighth – as Moses and Tedesco barely seemed to notice Brooks’ absence in structuring things up the middle of the field and building upon McIlwrick like he was a fixture in the no. 9 jersey. At moments, Moses was just as good in defense, shutting down a long ball from Corey Norman to Gutherson at the end of an offload-heavy set from the Eels five minutes before half time.
And yet the game was also partly decided by Moses’ final kick, which booted the Steeden straight into the in-goal area where it was caught, deftly, by the Eels, who started a final set with aplomb, knowing that the Tigers had no opportunity now to make up the four point differential. Watching that final move, I found myself thinking that there couldn’t be a better game to summarise everything that makes Moses’ departure so bittersweet for the Tigers. On the one hand, it’s almost a relief to see him go, but, on the other hand, he hasn’t reached his potential yet either, and the glimpses of that potential seem to have both galvanized and debilitated the Tigers themselves, who must have been thinking about playing him next weekend as they notched up yet another disappointing loss in a year of disappointing losses.