With its balmy breeze and golden light, Sunday afternoon felt like the first real day of spring, and the perfect backdrop to the final match of the regular NRL season at Leichhardt Oval. Shortly before, the Dragons had given way to the Cowboys, and since neither the Tigers nor the Warriors had a chance of making the finals, it felt as if the final match of James Tedesco and Aaron Woods could be enjoyed on its own terms, as it well deserved to be after the effort these two Blues representatives have put into their home club over the years.
The debut of Benji Marshall’s brother Jeremy Marshall-King made this last game of the late great Wests Tigers generation all the more poignant, with Benji turning up and performing an ad hoc haka for his sibling after the final siren. It was also a bit of a momentous match for Tui Lolohea, who was taking on the Warriors for the first time since switching teams midway through the year.
The Tigers started strong, with David Nofoaluma effecting a line break five minutes after slipping out of several soft tackles to get the ball across to Lolohea. From there, the ex-Warrior shot it out to Tedesco, whose harbour bridge pass to Jack Littlejohn brought the five-eighth to ground about ten centimetres short of the line, and several seconds short of his first points in the black and gold jersey.
It was to be the first of many near-misses for the Tigers, who seemed to be burning with an energy and spirit that didn’t quite break out until the latter parts of the game. Still, they got some consolation three minutes later, when Kevin Naiqama crossed over following a deft chip from Luke Brooks that found him at just the right time. Yet at the thirteenth minute the home team had another agonising almost-try following a high kick from Brooks that Nofoaluma knocked on after Ken Maumalo had knocked it backwards a split second earlier.
So rapid are those contests under the high ball that it’s often a matter of luck who gets a hand to it first, or which way the Steeden ends up going. Luck aside, though, the Tiges probably should have gone over earlier on that same set, thanks to a terrific on-the-ground offload from Woods that Brooks wasn’t even watching for, and which Teddy had to run in and transform into some second phase play, almost getting over the line himself, but unable to make as much of it as his halfback would have if he had kept his eyes on the ball.
Six minutes later, and the Tigers were frustrated once again, following a terrific pair of runs – Brooks from long-range and then Tim Grant from short-range – with both players looking as if they might put down points, only to find the New Zealand defence too good for them at this particular moment. Some consolation came when a high tackle on Grant gained the hosts a repeat set of six, but with the big prop coughing up the ball a couple of tackles the later the Tigers were back where they had started.
It was especially cathartic, then, when Esan Marsters scored their second try at the half hour mark, especially because David Fusitua had crashed over a couple of sets before only to lose possession at the very moment of grounding. The four points were all the more emphatic in that they didn’t come off any especially extravagant strategy but good old-fashioned professional timing and judgment on the right edge, with Lolohea overlapping with the other players on the attacking line to clear up some space for his outside back. Full credit has to go to Teddy, as well, for making the most of a bouncing ball on the previous tackle to keep the Tigers’ momentum going as they surged at the Warriors’ line.
At Leichhardt Oval, one try is enough to galvanise momentum, let alone two unanswered tries, so it felt almost inevitable when Lolohea crossed over a few minutes later, for the most rousing four points of the night so far. All throughout the game, the Tigers had brimmed with an energy and momentum they couldn’t quite consummate, not even in their first ten points, but now all that intensity found its outlet as Malakai Watene-Zelezniak effected a line break to run half the length of the field.
He was taken down on the edge, but not before offloading with one hand to Tedesco, who then got it across to Lolohea, who in turn danced around an ankle tap from Issac Luke to accelerate through the last fifteen metres without a Warrior in sight. In its elegance and symmetry – centred on Teddy but bookended by two new Leichhardt arrivals – it was a poetic summary of everything that rendered this final game of the 2017 season so poignant and so spirited for Tigers supporters.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Lolohea, along with Nofoaluma, had played a crucial part in MWZ getting possession down the other end of the field in the first place. At last, the Tigers had managed to run the length of the field and score on the first tackle, something they had been yearning to do since the opening minutes of the game. For my money, there have been few moments all season when the sense of camaraderie between the players has been so strong, or the synergy between the team and the fans so intense, even or especially because they were playing for nothing but pride on the very cusp of finals footy.
To stay in the game, the Warriors had to score before the siren, and that’s just what they did, with Solomone Kata burrowing through the Tigers forward pack after receiving the ball right on the line to put down four points one minute out from half time. Obviously, this was a very different kind of try from Lolohea’s a couple of minutes before, but in its own way it was almost as powerful, partly because it allowed New Zealand to head into the break with their head held high, but also because the visitors had managed to make good on an aborted push at the line more rapidly – from one tackle to the next the Tigers had at any point over the course of the first stanza, even if they were still below on the score board.
With Luke’s conversion bouncing off the posts to add the extras, the New Zealand supporters could breathe just a little easier, while Tigers fans must have been hoping against hope that they weren’t in for yet another backend choke. It was doubly rousing, then, when Naiqama crossed over roughly the same amount of time into the second stanza as he had put down points into the first stanza.
It came off the back of a long, wobbly pass from Brooks that bounced a good six metres across the turf before Naiqama beat Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to clean it up, surging forward to ground the ball in the southwestern extremity of the field. The blow was all the greater for the Warriors in that they’d previously had a shot at a comparable movement up the other end, except that Maumalo had been unable to clean up the Steeden before it skidded into touch.
Watching Naiqama crash over was therefore like witnessing the try they really should have had, and added fuel to the fire over the next couple of minutes, as the visitors put in one of their most plosive sets of the evening so far. Giving the Tigers forwards a real run for their money, New Zealand’s big men headed for the line, with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck going over a couple of tackles in, off the back of a deft pass from Asa Hingano, who barely touched the ball before bouncing it back across to his fullback to curve around and ground it.
By this stage, the game could go either way, and as the hour mark approached the Warriors received what initially seemed to be some critical momentum on the back of two penalties – the first for having the ball knocked out by the Tigers, the second for interference in the ruck. From there, they converged on the posts from all angles, as Fusitua crossed over for what, again, looked like a certain try (and Fusitua himself clearly considered to be a certain try), only for Bunker footage to show that the New Zealand winger had lost possession at the very moment of grounding for the second time that evening.
If Fusitua had scored, the Warriors would have been within a try of the hosts, but instead the no try ruling seemed to empower the Tigers, as the momentum that had built in the wake of RTS’ four points started to dissipate and had all but vanished by the time that Fusitua made high contact on Teddy and gave the Tigers their fifth penalty for the evening, with a clumsy take from Mason Lino right on the try line granting the hosts the first goal line drop out of the game.
From there, the team were raring for it, with Alex Twal actually crossing a good metre or so over, only to be held up in a standing tackle. While it was a bit anticlimactic to see Littlejogn forced to run the ball on the final tackle, the Tigers did well on the following set, in which Nikoll-Klokstad burned up the right side of the field and looked set to pull off a Rapana-like kick on the sideline at full speed, only for MWZ and then Teddy to slam him into touch and provide Fusitua with his third aborted opportunity out on the wing.
A set later, the Warriors once again got some possession with a one-on-one strip, only for a forward pass from RTS to land them back where they started. Slowly but surely, the game was edging the way of the home team, with Woods subbing back on to join Tedesco for their final twelve minutes at Leichhardt. It was then, and only then, that Nofoaluma put down the fifth Tigers try, off the back of a couple of terrific passes from Lolohea and Masters but also, more importantly, the the escalating momentum and field position over the previous minutes, as more and more Tigers players found themselves getting right to the line (or over it) but not quite managing to cross over to put down points.
All evening the Tigers had been itching to translate their energy into a really unassailable lead, and now they’d achieved it, in an enormously cathartic final game for both Teddy and Woods, along with all the fans who have watched them evolve over the last few years. It was poetic justice, too, that it should be Nofoaluma who went over – the only player who has appeared in every game this year, and a reminder that many of the most reliable and stalwart members of the team will still be around to provide continuity and guidance for the younger generation.
The celebrity status and constant speculation around Leichhardt’s Big Four has tended to eclipse these team players and yet, as Aloiai’s try against the Cowboys last week attested, they’re arguably the bedrock of the Tigers culture, making it especially rousing to see Nofa put down what was effectively the match-winning try. While the commentators speculated as to whether Woods might be chosen to kick the final conversion, it felt right that Lolohea continued to take charge with the boot, since by this stage the Tigers were effectively playing their first game of the 2018 season rather than their last game of the 2017 season.
The Warriors weren’t done, however, with Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad putting down the final points of the game at the seventy-eighth minute, off the back of a damaging run and flick pass to the right from Fusitua. So spirited were the Tigers by this stage that this barely made a dent in their exuberance, and yet it was also nice to see both Fusitua and Nicoll-Klokstad having a chance to make up for some fairly disappointing moments earlier in the game. While 2018 is a big unknown for both outfits, these final points made it feel like something of a happy ending for both, and there’s not much more you could ask from the last game of the regular footy season.