ROUND 13: Sydney Roosters v. Wests Tigers (Allianz Stadium, 3/6/18)
With James Tedesco, Boyd Cordner, Latrell Mitchell and Dylan Napa at Origin camp, there was a considerable amount of pressure on the remaining Roosters to pull off a convincing win over a Wests Tigers outfit that hadn’t lost a single player to either the Blues or the Maroons. There was particular pressure on Blake Ferguson, who was filling in for Tedesco at fullback, and who had a bit of a mixed start to the game, only to come strong around the twenty-minute mark to get the Roosters back on track.
Given that these two teams have conceded the least tries of the 2018 season so far, this was always going to be a struggle for points. Still, the game started with a wilder and weirder ride than anyone might have expected, often playing more like a blooper reel than a first-grade game of footy. Mere minutes into the game Fergo coughed up the high ball, setting the stage for a series of Sydney stuffups that included an intercept from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to Luke Brooks, a kick from Brooks that saw Fergo fall over his own feet, and then a kick from Benji between Luke Keary and Mitch Aubusson that literally threaded its way between Fergo’s legs.
The strangest moment came when Keary coughed up the ball after cleaning up a kick from Brooks, simply popping it out of his right hand without any pressure from the Tigers at all, in one of the oddest unforced errors of the 2018 season so far. A poke to the eye early in the game probably had something to do with it, since Keary’s judgement and perception were both a bit awry over the course of the entire match, even if it became less visible once Fergsuon got his act together in the fullback role.
While the Tigers had their own share of weird errors, including a lost ball from Benji on the first tackle of a dropout, they probably had more moments of isolated brilliance over this first half as well, most of which revolved around Brooks or Thompson in some way, since Benji, like Keary, wasn’t quite as focused as usual. The centrepiece was a pair of back-to-back quick taps that allowed Thompson to clock up fifty-five metres in about thirty seconds, although an offload from Brooks to Matt Eisenhuth right on the line and some deft kicks made this a great start for him too.
As it turned out, the Tigers were the first to put points on the scoreboard, following a pair of penalties from JWH and Victor Radley that got Esan Marsters in place to clock up the first penalty goal of the night. The addition of Josh Reynolds for his third appearance of the year after only fifty-two minutes of 2018 football initially looked like an opportunity to build upon this momentum, but this was also just when Fergo chose to consolidate, breaking across the line for a fifty-metre run up the right edge.
To his credit, Ferguson didn’t panic when he was contained by the Tigers up the other end, instead opting for a quick play-the-ball to get the footy across to Cooper Cronk, who responded with an oblique crossfield kick that gave Mahe Fonua his first real test under the high ball this season. Unfortunately, Fonua doubted himself, since he would probably have been able to catch the Steeden if he’d just stayed in place, but instead jumped for it and gave Daniel Tupou time to insert himself into the equation, for a contest that Fonua was never going to win at this point in time.
While Fonua didn’t give up on the play, his next contribution was even worse, as he pulled the big Roosters winger back for what could quite possibly have guaranteed him a penalty try if he hadn’t managed to get the ball to ground right before the line. It was a pretty big blip on Fonua’s outstanding start to the season, and Ivan Cleary shifted him almost immediately, even though there were only fifteen seconds to go.
It was a pretty good decision in hindsight, since the first act ended as weirdly as it had begun, thanks to a penalty that was awarded to the Roosters right on the half-time siren. At first, it looked as if Cronk might aim for a field goal, but he chose to bomb instead, garnering a second penalty after Josh Reynolds was called offside in his efforts to clean up the high ball once it skidded backwards, in the very worst way for the ex-Bulldog to stamp his signature on the closing minutes of the opening half.
It felt appropriate, then, when Ferguson booted through a difficult sideline penalty shot, since the Roosters had built this late surge – eight points in the last two minutes – on the back of his renewed focus at fullback. Things just got worse for the Tigers at the start of the next forty, when Matt Ikavalu gifted the visitors six again only for Mahe Fonua to be dragged into touch at the start of the next tackle count.
That image of Sydney supremacy, combined with the memory of Tupou’s contest with Fonua, seemed to galvanise the Tricolors, who now enjoyed a sustained period of possession right on their line after Radley traversed the length of the field only to be brought down just short of the line by a trysaving ankle tap from Tui Lolohea. In the absence of the Roosters’ custodians, Radley had already put in one of his very best game in the Sydney jersey – possibly his best – and the team seemed to draw from his energy as they made the most of a pair of dropouts to harangue the Tigers.
Still, this was a testament to the Tigers’ goal line defence, and by the time that a fourth-tackle kick from Jake Friend came to nought it felt almost as if they’d scored four more points of their own, so valiantly had they kept out the Roosters attack. That just made it all the more dispiriting, though, when some interference from Elijah Taylor during the kick chase undid a good take under the high ball from Fonua, setting the Chooks up for some quick movement over to the left edge of the field where a deft offload from Fergo set up the giraffe for his second try of the evening.
The fact that Tupou already has two hat tricks against the Tigers gave this a bad feeling for the visitors, and yet the Tigers managed to score two more tries over the next twenty minutes, both of which came off Reynolds’ vision and determination. The first started with a kick from the ex-Bulldog that set up Tim Grant for the unlikeliest of tries, while the second came from Reynolds himself, who put his head down and buried through a maelstrom of Roosters defenders right on the try line.
It was a terrific testament to what Reynolds can do, with time, for the Tigers, but his achievement was eclipsed by an extraordinary trysaving tackle from Tupou on Thompson in the final minutes of the game. In an agonising slow-motion sequence for Tigers fans, Thompson tucked the footy under his arm and hit the turf about twenty centimetres short of the chalk, where Tupou curled around him to make sure that he couldn’t reach out an arm to get the four points. Given some of the freaky stuff that Thompson has managed on the wing this year, it was almost unbelievable to see him contained in this way, in the definitive moment of victory for Sydney City.
In the end, then, Tupou effectively got his third hat trick against the Tigers, while it’s back to the drawing board for the visiting outfit, who will need to reconsolidate when they take on the Sharks at home next week. Meanwhile, the Roosters will be looking to make the most of this win and morale when they take on a Newcastle outfit flush with success following their stunning decimation of the Eels on Friday night at ANZ, while dealing with the impact of Origin on their key playmakers as well.
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