Saturday afternoon’s match between the Roosters and the Tigers was always going to be a dramatic one, thanks to James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk’s first official appearance in Roosters gear, along with the return of Benji Marshall to his original club. Despite Josh Reynolds being a last-minute cancellation, thanks to a hamstring injury sustained during training, anticipation was still high at ANZ, although nobody could have anticipated exactly how unusual this game would be.
The first try was put out fifteen minutes from the end, by Blake Ferguson, at which point the Tigers were actually leading 4-2, having notched up two penalty goals to the Roosters’ one, in what had often felt more like a rugby union game than what many had picked as the most volatile and visceral opening match of the 2018 NRL season. From the beginning, Benji slotted back into the team as if he hadn’t been away, getting the game going with a great opening run, gaining penalty and then taking a quick tap to boot.
With another penalty shortly after for a high shot from Jared Werea-Hargreaves, the Tigers had their first chance to go for goal, as Tui Lolohea slotted the ball through the posts to put down the first points of the afternoon. Despite some strong moments from the hosts, however, the Chooks had been much more fluid and elegant with offloads and passes over these opening moments, and with two successive penalties at the eighth minute they looked set to score, only to knock on during the third tackle and return possession to the Tigers once again.
It was to be the beginning of multiple missed opportunities – for both teams – across the course of the game, with the Roosters coming close again five minutes later when Joseph Manu popped the ball out to Ferguson on the right edge of the field. From there, Fergo burned down the sideline, sending the Steeden back inside after drawing across the Tigers defence, only for Tedesco to knock on the kind of catch and ground he nearly always pulls off perfectly.
Seeing Tedesco and Cronk not quite acclimatised to their new team helped buoy the Tigers up during some frustrating moments of their own (you could tell that Cronk, in particular, hadn’t quite got used to not having Billy Slater behind them), culminating with a fantastic period of defence in the build up to the half time siren. Eight minutes out, and on the back of a goal line dropout, Cronk put in a stunning crossfield bomb that Fergo caught and popped back to Manu, only for a pack Tigers defence to drag the big backliner into touch before he had a chance to send the ball back inside or make a run for the wing himself.
Three minutes later, Daniel Tupou made a stab at the other wing, spinning around as another pack movement trapped him and then dragged him methodically into touch, a brilliant sequel to the play on Manu that together probably represented the very best moment of the game for the Tigers. With three minutes to go the hosts once again received a penalty just as Cronk was putting in a bomb and headed into the sheds ahead of the Roosters for the first time since the 2010 semi-final.
While nobody had expected Tedesco and Cronk to sync up with the team immediately, it was pretty strange to see them unable to orchestrate a single try between – let alone to be kept to zero – and the Chooks returned from the break clearly determined to double down on their effort, with Fergo breaking through the line two minutes in to notch up what was probably the strongest run of the afternoon so far.
To make things worse for the Tigers, Brooks copped a pretty harsh penalty for getting tangled up in the play-the-ball, with Latrell Mitchell adding the penalty kick to bring the score to 2-2. Taking the two was an interesting decision at this point in the game, and you could only assume that the Roosters assumed that they would have a bevy of tryscoring opportunities against a twelve-man team over the next ten minutes.
Yet in the most incredible defensive effort of the game so far, the Tigers somehow managed to keep the Chooks out during this high-stakes period, thanks in part to some terrific game management from Benji, who had already been a guiding force for the team, but who took Brooks’ absence as the sign to step up even more emphatically, fluidly controlling the fifth-tackle options and engineering two scrums to buy the Tigers a bit more time.
Combined with some sterling hit-ups from Ben Matulino, it was enough to get the black and gold army through, with the Tigsers actually clocking up two penalties while Brooks was in the bin – the first when Mitchelll tried to drag Thompson ten metres into touch after he’d finished grounding the ball; the second moments before Brooks jumped back onto the park. Despite lining up the Steeden right in front of the posts, however, Lolohea was unable to turn this last penalty into points – a moment that set the scene for the next part of this quarter, which saw some fairly spotty plays from both sides.
At the fifty-fourth minute, a slight knock-on during the play-the-ball from Tupou returned possession to the Tigers, only for Malakai Watene Zelezniak to cough it up again on the first tackle. Three minutes later, the Tigers put in a couple of massive efforts to keep the Roosters within their own ten for the first couple of tackles – the first time this had happened during the game – with Zane Tetevano eventually coughing up the ball and Tedesco failing to get a hold on it, producing what initially looked like a simultaneous grounding from Mitch Cornish and Benji – and was actually called a try on-field – only for the replay to show that Cornish had just got a hand to it first.
From there, the ball ebbed and flowed, until the injection of Victor Radley into the Roosters formula finally provided them with the speed and momentum they needed to get the ball over to the right side of the field as elegantly as they usually do, where Ferguson put down what will have to be the softest try of Round 1 – a stark contrast to all the frustration and accumulated energy that had preceded it.
So late had these first four points come in the game – especially compared to what we might have expected from the Roosters – that the Tricolors were as exuberant as if they’d won the game then and there. Fair enough, too, since while the Tigers might have put in a sterling defensive effort over the course of the game, they’d let a lot of tryscoring opportunities go by, and often seemed to be depending upon the Chooks not scoring as much as anything else.
Yet in the wake of Fergo’s four-pointer the game started to return to the pace of a regular rugby league match, with some left shoulder contact from Benji – and an additional move from Esan Marsters – forcing Tedesco to cough up the ball a moment later. Five minutes out from the end, Thompson came up with an unfortunate penalty and the tide seemed to have swung back to the Roosters, but three minutes out he became the final tryscorer of the night, thanks to a beautiful piece of play over to the right side of the field that mirrored Ferguson’s set-up shortly before.
The first part of the play came from Lolohea, who sent the ball over to the right, only for it to ricochet off Michael Chee Kam’s head and soar over Marsters before Thompson caught it on the chest. While there might have been a bit of luck in it, you couldn’t deny Chee Kam’s quick thinking in extricating the rest of his body from the ball, nor the superb grounding from Thompson in the wing. The final spectacle was yet to come, though, with Lolohea lining up, and then slotting through, the most difficult sideline conversion of the night to restore the two-point lead that the Tigers had enjoyed at the beginning of the game.
Given that the ex-Warrior had missed one from right in front of the posts it was almost unbelievable that he added the extras this time – just like the result was almost unbelievable, and a testament to the Tigers’ renewed belief and focus over the off-season and pre-season. Even if they don’t turn this into a winning streak, it’s a historic enough victory to make it feel as if a new era has arrived, and may well come to be seen as a key turning-point in the club’s gradual movement away from the Taylor years.