I don’t think I’ve ever felt as ambivalent going into a Tigers match as I did before their clash against the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium this round. On the one hand, I was desperate as all Tigers supporters for a really decisive win. At the same time, it’s hard to feel too excited about a win that depends on James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses or Aaron Woods, given their plans to move on to other clubs next year. Whereas there was something galvanising about seeing Moses play against his future club last week, the prospect of seeing Woods play against the Dogs was exhausting and dispiriting more than anything else.
But football is a funny thing, and within minutes I found myself invested in the team despite myself, and even mustering some excitement at key moments. Even then, however, those moments were relatively few and far between, since this was a fairly dull match by the standards of most games we’ve seen across the last couple of rounds. Not dull because of poor performances but dull because both teams seemed to have struck a fairly consistent groove and stuck to it for the majority of the game. As Warren Smith intimated on his Twitter account this week, you also reach a point at which the off field drama starts to overshadow the on field drama, rather than enhance it, and I certainly felt we’d reached this point with the Tigers over the course of the last week.
As might be expected, Tedesco, Moses and Woods put in fairly strong performances, with a neat pass from Teddy setting up David Nofoaluma for the first try of the afternoon. Moses, too, had a particularly strong kicking game – apparently he’s now averaging around 80% – and managed to convert both Tigers tries and add in three penalty goals to boot, the last of which followed a professional foul on Chris Lawrence and saw the game reach a 12-12 scoreline in the last ten minutes for a brief surge of sustained suspense.
However, it was probably Moses’ first penalty goal that was the most dramatic. Shortly after Mbye had been penalised for being downtown, Moses made a break for the line only to slam into one of the biggest tackles Josh Reynolds has ever landed. Having his face broken open didn’t prevent Reynolds getting up again to help prevent Tedesco continuing Moses’ momentum, but he turned out to be offside, gifting Moses the chance to make up for the biggest hit of the night with a penalty goal just before half time, as his fellow five-eighth stood gasping for breath and wiping blood off his face.
For Wests Tigers fans, it was perhaps more comforting to see David Nofoaluma and Kevin Naiqama putting in some of their strongest moves of the season. While not generally known for his tackling prowess, Naiqama managed to hold up Kerrod Holland after he’d taken the high ball and then keep him in place until Moses Suli and Chris Lawrence arrived to drag him over the line, forcing a goal line drop out for the Tigers ten minutes in. On the following set, Nofoaluma managed to score and would have managed a second four-pointer off an intercepted Sam Kasiano pass ten minutes later had Josh Morris not put in the chase of the year to down him on the ten metre line.
While Tedesco may be more talented, no player quite personifies the momentum of the Tigers – and the momentum of the Tigers under pressure – like Nofoaluma, who channeled all the aggrieved energy of the club over the last week into one of his most focused and angriest performances. It didn’t hurt, either, that Marcelo Montoya tackled him in the air when he was cleaning up a Bulldogs high ball in the early minutes of the game, since from then on he seemed to make it his mission to target and contain the Canterbury backline even more aggressively than he normally would.
Still, the set piece of the night came in the last couple of minutes, off the back of one of the most bizarre pieces of play this year. During the second stanza, Greg Eastwood copped a knee to the head but refused to leave the field for a concussion test until severa tackles later. He came back on again pretty soon, only to kick on the third tackle just as the Dogs were getting in place for the field goal needed to break the 12-12 deadlock. It was up there with Greg Inglis’ 2016 field goal for sheer strangeness, and delivered the ball right into the Tigers’ hands, who would end up scoring the match-winning try on the next set.
Even more comfortingly for Tigers supporters, that final play showcased both Luke Brooks’ spontaneity under pressure and Kevin Naiqama’s improvisational dexterity. As Brooks was getting set up for the Tigers’ own field goal, Josh Reynolds came right at him – it has to have been Jeynolds’ most brutal attacking game all year – forcing him to grubber the Steeden off to the left where it ricocheted and bounced up Josh Jackson’s torso only to land squarely in Naiqama’s hands, who circled around and planted it under the posts for the softest try of the night.
It was a solid ending to the Tigers’ best defensive effort of the year so far. While the Dogs also delivered a compelling game, their tries weren’t quite as innovative, with Marcelo Montoya making it over with a standard hit-and-spin at the fifteen minute mark and Kerrod Holland crossing the line with what would have been a double movement if the wily centre hadn’t managed to break free of Naiqama’s grasping try before getting the Steeden to ground.
Yet given that Holland’s four-pointer occurred at the end of a contentious Canterbury set that included a couple of possible forward passes along with a play-on call after an apparently completed tackle – shades of Milford came to mind – it didn’t pack quite the same punch as the Tigers’ two tries. Add in the fact that nobody had put down four points in the half hour before Naiqama and Brooks worked their magic, the Wests victory had an air of inevitability about it that’s quite rare for Tigers fans to experience.
Nevertheless, my response to it all was a bit muted. I know we should feel grateful that Woods, Tedesco and Moses are still giving their all to the club, but at this point I’m a bit beyond caring. In some ways I wish that they would just leave next week so we could get around with the job of rebuilding. Similarly, I know I should take heart from seeing Nofoaluma, Naiqama and Brooks working so well – and I do take heart from it – but even that was a bit dampened by the events of last week.
Call it one of those anomalous footy experiences then – a great result but one I couldn’t fully enjoy as I normally would. Here’s hoping that changes when it comes to taking on the Sharks next week. Here’s hoping, too, that the Dogs manage to get back on the wagon for the clash against the Raiders at home, since they really deserve the winning streak they’ve been on over the last couple of rounds as well and it’s been great to see them bounce back from their disastrous loss to the Sea Eagles a couple of weeks ago.