The Tigers have brought home their first win since their game against the Knights in Round 17 – and arguably their most rousing win since their game against the Cowboys in Round 6 – with a decisive 26-4 victory over the Titans at Cbus on Sunday afternoon. From the moment they ran out on the field the visitors seemed a bit fresher than usual, perhaps because they’re now playing for pride rather than for points. In particular, their second phase play was sharper than it has been at any point this season, and half an hour in they already led the Titans 8-0 for offloads, which they used judiciously over the course of the game.
It was hard to know what was more encouraging – the Tigers managing to gain 26 points or to only concede 4 points, in their best defensive effort in over two seasons. Add to that only seven missed tackles in the first three quarters of the game and this often felt like the swan song for the Tigers team as we’ve known it, along with all the potential they once seemed to have, with James Tedesco and Aaron Woods putting in a pair of performances that were almost Origin-like in their intensity and determination.
On the one hand, there’s something slightly bittersweet about that, especially because this was clearly a game that the team were playing for the fans, and for each other, with not even the slightest hope of finals footy in sight. In fact, given Newcastle’s shock win over the Dragons the day before, the main thought on everybody’s mind was that the Tigers were now going to have to work extra hard to avoid coming up with the wooden spoon at the end of the 2017 season.
At the same time, Sunday’s game was a good indication that Cleary’s coaching is really starting to make its mark, since the win was emphatic enough that you can’t simply attribute it to a sloppy performance from the Gold Coast. Nor can you simply attribute it to Jarryd Hayne and Tyrone Roberts’ positional switches, since it wasn’t merely in the backline that the Tigers were dominant but across the course of the field.
It always takes a while for a coach to effect a change in club culture, and so as much as this felt like a farewell for Teddy and Woods, it was also an important team building moment for the next generation of Tigers, and will surely be a point of reference as Cleary works to rebuild and reimagine the team in 2018. More immediately, it’s also a terrific precursor to next week’s game against the Panthers at Pepper, which is bound to be personal, both because of the clash of the Clearys but also because of the clash between Dallin and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, who will be playing each other for the first time.
Still, Sunday’s game was plenty personal enough as well. On the one hand, it was William Zillman’s birthday, and had been Dale Copley’s birthday the day before, while Sunday also marked the eleven year anniversary of Chris Lawrence’s NRL debut against the Broncos at Suncorp. Given that Lawrence was also back on the field after a pectoral injury, expectations were high for his organisational skills and vision from the second row, and he didn’t disappoint, offering one of his most brutal and focused games of the 2017 season.
One of his most powerful moments came during the first half, when he effected a damaging one-on-one strip on Morgan Boyle, only for Hayne to dash in and regain possession, taking advantage of the momentary break in play to put down what initially looked to be one of the softest tries of the year. Yet Bunker footage revealed that Boyle had got a hand to the Steeden at the very end of the strip, turning it into a knock-on and returning possession to the Tigers at the very moment at which Gold Coast seemed poised to score.
As fate would have it, Hayne, like Tedesco, would have the chance to make good on a disallowed try. It wouldn’t come until the fifty-third minute, however, and even then would be the only points that the Titans would manage to put on the board, thanks in part to an afternoon of fairly sloppy conversions from both sides. Before then, the Tigers would put down three tries, the first of which came from Esan Marsters a mere three minutes in.
It came off the back of some great movement up the right side of the field, as the visitors kept on tempting the hosts to move further and further out of their line, eventually clearing up enough space for the young centre to crash over. The communication between Luke Brooks and Tui Lolohea was especially impressive, and would continue to pay dividends over the course of the afternoon, as Brooks seemed to identify and integrate himself with the new generation of Tigers players more decisively than at any point to date.
Twenty-five minutes later, Teddy crashed over for one of the most unusual tries of his career, after a couple of sets that started with a brilliant tackle from Sauaso Sue that saw the ball come loose from the Titans line. Building upon the opportunity opened up by his forward, Matt McIlwrick tapped it back for Michael Chee Kam to intercept, with the Tigers also gaining a goal line dropout after Dale Copley didn’t quite manage to get back into the field of play after a damaging high ball from Brooks. Finally, after a brilliant offload from Marsters to Chee Kam, Teddy found himself with possession.
From there, however, Teddy lost the ball, only to stick out a boot and repackage a knock-on as a grubber, launching forward to ground it a couple of seconds later. For all the incredulity it caused from observers, it was a great example of ingenuity under pressure, and exactly the kind of creativity that can make Tedesco so damaging at fullback. The fact that he had only managed to keep a couple of fingers – and the slightest of downward motions – when grounding the Steeden just made the try feel all the more fortuitous, and so unexpected that the Tigers didn’t quite know how to respond after the Bunker decision, despite having high-fived Teddy as a matter of course after he’d returned from the in-goal area.
Not surprisingly, it was an important momentum-builder for the visitors, not least because they’ve been the worst team in 2017 for enforcing goal line dropouts. It didn’t hurt, either, that it made up for what would have been one of Tedesco’s most dexterous short-range tries of the season – a skidding, swerving pivot through the defence a couple of sets earlier – that had been denied for the slightest of obstructions on Ryan James.
The Tigers wouldn’t score again until six minutes into the second stanza, but they didn’t need to, with Tedesco’s four-pointer generating enough momentum for them to claim the first half as their own. When the next points did come, they were put down by Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, off a great bit of play from Brooks down the short side, who showed the ball only to outrun Tyrone Roberts and then get it across to his winger. No Tigers player has exceeded my expectations in 2017 quite like MWZ, and it’s my bet that 2018 will take him to places we could never have expected when he was playing reserve grade for the Panthers.
It was clear, by this point, that the Titans needed to score next in order to have any chance of a comeback, especially because the first stanza – and the playing conditions – contrasted so starkly with their last home game at Cbus against the Sharks. Not surprisingly, this would only occur after Hayne returned from centre to fullback, and Roberts headed back to the centres, although he would have been better to stick to the halves as usual.
Over the course of the 2017 season, there’s been a tendency to hype up Hayne’s tries, but this time he deserved full credit for his four-pointer, despite coming off the back of a hard, strong run from James and some great vision out of dummy half from Nathan Peats. Caught around the feet by Kevin Naiqama a good five metres out from the line, Hayne nevertheless managed to twist around a couple of times to finally find the line, despite Matt Eisenhuth crashing down on top of him in the process.
Indeed, so contorted was this grounding – almost a kind of slow-motion, suspended twist-and-spin – that Hayne initially appeared to be injured, and while he seemed to recover pretty quickly, the expression on his face both during and after the tackle made it clear that this had been the hardest try of the afternoon so far. If anything, it just seemed to clarify that the Titans were going to have to work hard to even stay afloat, let alone have some chance of winning what initially looked to be a fairly predictable home game.
As it turned out, the Tigers worked harder, with Chris Lawrence taking advantage of a gaping hole in the Gold Coast defence sixty-four minutes in to slam through Hayne right on the Titans’ goal line. It was a rousing moment for the former centre’s eleventh anniversary, not least because it represented his 76th try, which makes him the equal top try scorer for Wests Tigers along with Benji Marshall, a fact that probably brought a nostalgic sigh from some of the black and gold faithful.
The Tigers weren’t done, however, with Aaron Woods bringing in his first try of the season four minutes out from the end, simply slamming through the Gold Coast defence out of the ruck to plant the ball over the line. It came at the back of a sustained period of possession for the visitors, thanks in part to a deft strip from Naiqama on Roberts, and felt like Woods linking up with Tedesco for one great final swan song – the opposite of a consolation try (or perhaps a different kind of consolation try).
Of course, the Tigers win doesn’t have any real pragmatic repercussions beyond setting up a bit of team spirit for next year, although it’d be wonderful to see them bring some of the same mettle to bear on their clash against the Panthers next week. On the other side of the Steeden, however, the Titans’ hopes for finals footy have just got considerably – and unexpectedly – narrower, and they’re now going to be playing every game as if it already is finals footy, starting with their Queensland derby against the Broncos at Cbus next week.