Saturday night’s match has to be the utter nadir of the Wests Tigers’ 2017 – the game that, more than any other, encapsulates their distress and disarray over the course of this season. Last time they took on Brisbane during the Origin period they won with a field goal from Mitchell Moses. This time around, Moses had just left for Parramatta, Luke Brooks was out at the last minute with a hamstring injury, James Tedesco got ten in the bin just before half time and Chris Lawrence was also down for the count.
What ensued, then, was a semi-improvised team, with a pair of inexperienced centres in Moses Suli and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Jordan Rankin at halfback (and then fullback after Teddy was taken off), Joel Edwards starting at second row and Kyle Lovett back in at the second row as well. Meanwhile James Roberts was back for the Broncos after a week off, while Adam Blair was celebrating his 250th game, his stint with the Tigers a distant memory.
Over the course of the game the Tigers didn’t score a single point, in what felt a bit like a Blues-Maroons rehearsal on the eve of Origin 1. As if to show up the inexperience of the visiting centres, Tautau Moga brought home the first try off a terrific cut-out pass from Kodi Nikorima to Anthony Milford, who straightened up and got it back to Moga right in the nick of time. Throughout the night, Nikorima’s stellar performance as stand-in halfback just seemed to emphasise the lack of options in the Tigers’ camp with Brooks and Moses out, and he was a menace from the first minute.
Ten minutes later, Alex Glenn also outplayed Edwards and Lovett to bring home the second Brisbane try from the second row, culminating an outstanding Brisbane set that opened with a terrific harbour bridge pass from Darius Boyd to Corey Oates and concluded with a brutal run and hit-up from Blair followed by some deft hands from McCullough and Milford. If it wasn’t technically a team try, it felt like one in spirit, and the Broncos were clearly bursting at the seams to put more points on the board.
As the Broncos’ surge escalated, all Wests Tigers eyes were on Teddy, who found it harder and harder to catch a break for his team. After being slammed to the ground by Moga on his way to the tryline, he made a critical error in the play-the-ball halfway through the first stanza and then had what initially appeared to be a definite try denied ten minutes out from halftime due to obstruction earlier in the tackle. Glimpsing the end of the longest tryscoring drought of his career – he hasn’t put down four points at a time since Round 1 – only to have it denied, his frustration was still fresh when he was binned eight minutes out from the end for a long tackle on Jordan Kahu.
To be fair, this was also one of Teddy’s most impressive moments of the night, as he chased Kahu down the length of the field after a deft intercept and reached him just before the try line, getting him to ground but holding him down for just a few seconds too long. Teddy doesn’t tend to be a particularly brutal or dirty player, and there’s no way he would have risked being sent off at this point – the penalty was an almost unavoidable consequence of the intensity of the tackle required to bring down Kahu at such high speed.
Still, it was a shock for the team, especially once Rankin fumbled the first high ball as stand-in fullback after Teddy was sent off, gifting the Broncos the scrum that led to Kahu’s four-pointer a couple of minutes later, as the Brisbane winger finished off the try that Teddy tried to stop and brought his brilliant run full circle. Before that had even happened, however, Sims managed to put down a four-pointer as Tedesco was being marched from the field, off a neat, well-timed pass from – who else – Anthony Milford.
Over the last couple of weeks, teams have managed to take advantage of depleted oppositions in a particularly emphatic way – think the Storm try after Hayne was injured, or the Bulldogs try after Latrell Mitchell was down for the count – but none have managed to quite capitalise on the prospect of a twelve man defence like the Broncos, who did everything in their power to make the Tigers’ feel Tedesco’s loss.
The sense of annihilation at the end of the first half was all the more heartbreaking in that the Tigers still had some moments of inspiration despite all the odds stacked against them. From an early run and line break by David Nofoaluma, to Kevin Naiqama’s great take under the high ball halfway through, to Jack Littlejohn finally achieving the first repeat set for the Tigers half an hour in, it was clear that – unlike Moses’ lacklustre performance last week – this was a team that really wanted to win.
Nevertheless, the Tigers continued to struggle over the second stanza, with yet another almost-try for Tedesco setting the mood. After a great line break up and movement up through the ruck from Jacob Liddle, the stand-in hooker passed back only for Elijah Taylor to go to ground while he was catching it, and allow the Brisbane defence to catch up with him. Things seemed to regain momentum with a Littlejohn grubber on the next play, only for Boyd to reach the Steeden just before Tedesco, who tumbled over him and was unable to plant it firmly over the goal-line.
The one silver lining for the Tigers was that Milford was forced to kick the ball into touch and gift them with another goal-line dropout. Still, it was a fleeting victory, with Roberts scooping up Littlejohn’s subsequent grubber right on the try line and running virtually the length of the field, outpacing Suli and curving around to outmanoeuvre Nofoaluma before passing over to Nikorima to put four more points on the board. There’s nothing quite as dispiriting to an opposing team as a Roberts intercept and run – nobody else can make it seem quite so unexpected or damaging – and this was the worst possible point in the game for the ex-Titan to show his magic.
Shortly after, it felt as if Tim Grant might rival Roberts with a run of his own, only for him to realise that he had no support player to back him up. While Teddy took control on the next tackle and went over the line again with a twist-and-spin, his try was once again disallowed, this time due to a forward pass from Littlejohn out of dummy half. It was a bitter pill to swallow, not least because Nikorima was able to manoeuvre the flattest of flat passes shortly after to Joe Ofahengaue, who put Milford over the line in turn for the final Brisbane try of the night.
The game took on a more sober tone in the last twenty minutes, with Andrew McCullough KO’d and taken off on a stretcher, in one of the most dramatic medical interventions in some time. It’s great to hear he may be back in shape as soon as Round 12, but on the night it really looked as if it could be more serious, and both teams were clearly affected by it in the last part of the game, especially after Josh Aloiai was also stretchered off following a particularly damaging leg twist four minutes from the final siren with what turned out to be a dislocated kneecap.
It was really hard, as a Tigers fan, to see the looks on the team’s faces as they watched one of their critical forwards taken off the field after being held tryless for the entire night, especially since Aloiai is one of the most modest and reliable workhorses in the team. By this point, the game was clearly over, with both sides just counting down the clock for the final few minutes, although it does have to be said that the agitation and shock of losing their hooker in such a dramatic way made the Broncos’ drive and grit all the more powerful in these final minutes, with Josh McGuire stepping back into the no. 9 role to make sure that the Tigers didn’t stand any better chance of finally putting some points on the board.
To add salt to the wound, Teddy had gone over once again fifteen minutes out from the end for what initially looked like a consolation try only for the Bunker to call him offside. With a bit more dexterity and support from the team, then, Tedesco could have racked up at least twelve points (and broken the longest tryscoring drought of his career three time over), making it even more disappointing and frustrating to see the team kept to zero by the final siren.
It was the second time in two weeks that a record had been matched at Suncorp, after the Storm rivalled the highest losing score in Australian rugby league against the Titans the previous weekend. Up until this point, the largest winning margin between the Broncos and the Tigers was 30 points, but that was solidly kicked out of the park by the final 36-0 scoreline (and would have been beaten by even more were it not for a few uncharacteristic Brisbane errors over the course of the second half).
For now, the Tigers have to regroup and think about how they are going to take on the Dragons without Tedesco in two weeks, while the Broncos will be looking to maintain their momentum against the Roosters in Sydney after Origin without their key playmakers. Here’s hoping that Nikorima will get a chance to sub into the halves in Milford’s absence, since Saturday’s match felt like a decisive moment in his growth and evolution, and it would be great to see him have a shot at another special performance before Brisbane return to their regular rotation.