ROUND 1: Wests Tigers v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Leichhardt Oval, 16/3/19)
No game felt quite so debilitated by the stormy conditions in Sydney over the weekend as the clash between the Tigers and Sea Eagles at Leichhardt Oval. With the field totally sodden, both teams had a pretty error-laden night, with the Tigers’ first half playing as a clear throwback to 2018 – a largely defence-driven game – but their second stanza taking them into a new attacking era with a stunning trio of tries. For the first time in team history, the Tigers won four in a row against the Sea Eagles, who seemed to be struggling with new combinations more than most other outfits in Round 1, even those who had experienced more dramatic trades over the off-season.
The game started strong for the Tigers, who got a repeat set within their own twenty after an opening handling error from Jorge Taufua. While Luke Garner dropped the football a couple of tackles later, it went backwards, and found Robbie Farah, whose kick forced Marty Taupau to pop it into touch, resulting in the first dropout of the night for the home team. In one of the many changes in fortune that would typify the game as a whole, however, a difficult bounce on Daly Cherry-Evans’ kick now defied Mahe Fonua, who saw the Steeden slip out of his hands and over the sideline.
The Tiges got their next big chance with a seven tackle set after Corey Thompson caught the high ball in goal following a slightly mistimed kick from Kane Elgey. Yet this opening period was now bookended by another lost ball from Garner at the end of the next set, thanks to some pressure from Taupau, who got some closure after his opening error. This time, the bounce didn’t favour Garner, and the Sea Eagles finally got another chance to attack the line.
Still, there was a sense of desperation to the Manly side – perhaps because they’d lost their last three games against the Tigers – embodied in a dangerous tackle from Addin Fonua-Blake a couple of minutes later, as the big prop went straight for the legs as Benji Marshall was booting the footy downfield. Declining the kick to tap and go, the Tiges now failed to capitalise on their second big opportunity of the night, as Ryan Matterson lost the ball on the second tackle.
No surprise, then, that the Tigers now doubled down on the defence that had served them so well in 2018, as the Sea Eagles struggled to get out of their own end on the following set of six. It was a relief for them when an offside penalty from Robbie Farah led to some additional field position, but the DCE kick was underwhelming once again, allowing Thompson to follow it into touch without much effort. The result was another seven tackle set for the Tiges, starting with an offside penalty for Taupau to mirror Farah a couple of minutes earlier.
Like the Sea Eagles before them, the Tigers still failed to capitalise, thanks to a breakdown in communication on the final tackle. With Mahe Fonua and Esan Marsters in too deep to collect Farah’s kick, or even read his gesticulations about its direction, the ball went begging, and possession changed over once again. Manly weren’t that much better, however, as DCE found himself caught on the last tackle of the next set, and Moses Suli was wrapped up to ensure yet another short-range opportunity for the home team.
A dropped ball from Farah out of dummy half on the third tackle was probably the most egregious handling error of the night so far, suffusing the Tigers with desperation in turn. That probably explains the second effort from Benji that gave the Sea Eagles another burst after Brendan Elliot cleaned up a Farah kick. At the other end of the field, DCE channeled Lachlan Lewis, pausing before booting the ball over to the Manly right edge, where Robert Jennings knocked it on, Jake Trbojevic kicked it forward, and Curtis Sironen scooped it up to crash over the line.
With the referee impeding Corey Thompson, however, the call was no try for the Sea Eagles, who got the scrum feed, but saw their attack fall apart on the fourth tackle, as Jake Trbojevic missed the pass to DCE. The ball travelled a long way back, and by the time that the Manly halfback had scooted back to collect it, he only had time for the most cursory of passes, allowing Matterson to regain possession with little effort. A penalty from Sironen saw the Tigers march back down the other end again, where they generated some of their best momentum of the game so far.
Once again, though, it all came to nothing, as a forward pass from Marshall and a knock-on from Momirovski on the left edge gave Manly yet another chance. Searching for a way to break the game open, DCE kicked from the forty-metre line on the fourth tackle, but Jennings cleaned up the footy before it even had a chance of bouncing over the sideline. At the end of the next set, Momirovski grubbered, and Elliot waited for it to bounce into touch, until the ex-Rooster was right behind him.
Another second and Momirovski would have scored, but it was also unclear whether Elliot had grasped the extent of his threat, meaning it was hard to say which player and team had come away better during this moment of supreme brinksmanship. This was probably the most finely-balanced point in the game, the fulcrum at which it became viscerally necessary for one or team or other to break things open to prevent the other side finally getting the competitive advantage.
For a moment, the Sea Eagles looked like they might have done just that, when successive penalties for Fonua (offside) and Aloiai (not square at marker) saw DCE take the two with thirteen minutes left on the clock. But with a lost ball from Taufua two tackles into the next set, Manly were back where they started. Without scoring a try in quick succession, the impact of the penalty kick started to wane, until, five minutes out, Elliot made the worst handling error of the night so far, fumbling the Steeden just as it had slowed down and seemed destined for his palms.
Three minutes into the second stanza, an escorts penalty from Jack Gosiewski gave Marsters the opportunity to boot through the Tigers’ first points of 2019 and level the scoreline. Learning from the Sea Eagles’ post-kick lag, the home team scored the first try shortly after, when a Brooks grubber ricocheted off Sironen’s legs right in front of the posts, and Robbie stormed in to slam it down.
After so much frustrated options for both teams, the simplicity and elegance of this try was just what the Tigers needed to break the game open. Still, this was also one of the most dexterous groundings of Round 1 as well, since the slipperiness and low bounce of the ball made Farah’s putdown more challenging than it looked, especially when so many players on the field had fumbled the footy under precisely these circumstances.
With Marsters adding the extras, the Tigers were starting to roll, and a great ball from Farah saw Russell Packer break through the line on the left edge shortly after, only for the big prop to inexplicably send the Steeden out to Garner, despite Brooks clamouring for it on his inside. To add insult to injury, Garner missed Benji hollering for it on his inside on the next tackle, leading to a couple of clumsy options for the home team that culminated with Thompson tumbling over the football in goal, leaving Jake Trbojevic just enough space to get it to ground with his lower torso.
In the opening half, this would have been enough to decelerate the Tigers for a couple of minutes, especially with Taupau making the hit of the night on Alex Twal one tackle into the next set. There was now too much momentum with the home side, however, for this brief disappointment to set them back, and sure enough Farah, Brooks and Marshall consolidated once again to shift the ball across to Garner, who simply ran straight over DCE before dummying twice to Thompson and crashing over the line.
In slow motion, you could see the look on Thompson’s face shift from urgency from exhilaration, as he realized that Garner had timed the play perfectly, and set up his team for a twelve point lead once Marsters had booted through the extras once again. In such a low-scoring game, one more try would be enough to seal the deal, and Farah provided it fifteen minutes out from the end, proving that a thirty-five year-old veteran can still lead his troops, capping off a season opener that Robbie would never have dreamed of when he sat on the scoreboard in late 2016.
It started with a quick play-the-ball from Ben Matulino, and unfolded like a condensed version of the previous try, as Farah seemed to fuse all of his, Marshall, Brooks and Garner’s dexterity, collecting the ball at speed out of dummy half and then dummying twice on his way to the line, shrugging off Sironen, Koroisau and Jake Trbojevic in the process. Combining speed, strength and courage in equal measure, it was the best display by a veteran in Round 1, and the perfect rallying-point for the Tigers on the brink of a new season.
With such a sterling trio of tries from the home team, Taufua’s four points at the seventy-ninth minute could barely be called a consolation. While it did provide the big backliner with some closure after his opening error, it’s hardly a good sign for the Sea Eagles that they were unable to score against a mid-range team until the final minute of the match. They’ll be looking to flex their muscles, then, when they take on a frustrated Roosters outside at Brookvale on Saturday evening, just as the Tigers will be keen to translate this win into first-half points, and a stronger start, against the Warriors at Campbelltown, for their second successive home fixture of 2019.
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